A concept developed during wartime in the past is cultivating great hope right now.
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Spring has always been peak gardening season, as plants begin growing again after winter. But this year, people are digging in the dirt for a new reason: the return of victory gardens. If the term victory gardens is new to you, the concept actually dates back to World War I when the National War Garden Commission encouraged Americans to grow their own fruits and vegetables, both to feed the troops as well as themselves. According to the History Channel, this effort helped to generate millions of new garden plots all across the country. These same victory gardens ramped up again during World War II. And now that we are all faced with a common enemy in the form of a pandemic, growing food at home is providing a powerful way to collectively fight back.

rows of vegetables planted in a circle
Credit: Andre Baranowski

So why, exactly, are victory gardens making a comeback now? First, the pandemic started right at the time of year when many of us are itching to get outside planting after a long, cold winter. Second, gardening is an excellent activity to do with kids, and with schools closed, it’s a perfect time to teach them a new skill while getting fresh air. Lastly, gardening tends to surge in every recession or economic downturn; it happened in 2008-2009 and is happening again now, says Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau (NGB). “It’s a way to save money but still feed your family healthy and tasty food.”

Why It's a Good Time to Start a Victory Garden

The word victory implies winning, and that’s what we all want in the end, in regard to this virus, says Blazek. “We want to win and not let it change our lives any more than it already has,” she adds. “Achieving a victory also means it's something you have control over, and having control over your own yard or garden is encouraging during these uncertain times.”

Kathleen Killin, a lawyer who lives in Toronto, is putting in a victory garden with her family this month. She and her husband have long been interested in gardening (their infant son is even nicknamed “Sprout”). They’ve planted vegetables and flowers for years, and also love history, so it makes perfect sense. She says the call to action people had during the World Wars to become more self-reliant has resonated with her family this year, prompting them to change how they were planting together.

“Instead of planting a new clematis, we will be planting runner beans; instead of a new rose bush for my first Mother’s Day, I will be getting a new collection of lettuces and herbs,” Killin explains. “With staying home being the new normal, this is the call to action we can implement. Plus, there’s nothing better than a meal you’ve grown from seed.”

Lettuce growing in a garden
Credit: Kindra Clineff

How to Start a Victory Garden

The first Victory Garden Manual was published in 1943, so the National Garden Bureau thought it was time for an update and just introduced its modern guide to growing victory gardens. Here are a few tips from it to keep in mind:

  • Know your growing zone. You can check yours using this tool from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Make a list of the items your family enjoys eating. This will help you to determine which fruits and vegetables, and how many of each, you should consider planting. Love potatoes? Consider adding an extra row. Some members of your family aren't a fan of eggplant? Then skip it this year.
  • Decide which plants you want to grow from seed or buy as plants. When planning this out, keep in mind that shopping for plants is a little more challenging with social distancing and shelter-in-place rules in place in most parts of the country. And many seed companies have been overwhelmed with orders recently so you may want to consider swapping seeds with neighbors if possible.
  • Plan your garden space accordingly. Ensure you have the proper amount of sunlight, whether you’re doing an in-ground garden, raised beds, or containers.
  • Know your soil. Research your area to learn what type of soil you have, or buy high-quality gardening mixes to ensure healthy plants.
  • Follow suggested sowing and planting dates. Check the date of your last frost and use this handy calculator to determine when to start your seeds.

How Victory Gardens Are Giving Us Hope During COVID-19

Many of the original victory gardens from both world wars were community gardens, something that's not really possible right now due to social distancing. But whether you’re tilling up a plot in your backyard, adding some planters to your patio, or even doing container gardening indoors, it all counts as a victory garden because the hopeful sentiment behind it is the same. The vast number of virtual resources available to home gardeners now, including some from NGB, can also help you be a more successful (and happier and confident) gardener, says Blazek.

There’s a quote by Audrey Hepburn that Blazek says she’s been repeating often lately: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” People are out there planning and planting with their families right now because they know better times are sure to come. “We are watching seeds germinate and then grow,” says Blazek, “which is another way of believing in the future.”

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