Julie Beals learned to grow from her grandparents. They lived west of London during World War II and like many on food rations, they planted edibles in their yard to provide food for themselves and their neighbors.
Beals is now the executive director of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, an organization that manages 42 community gardens across the county, offers assistance to another 125 community gardens, and serves more than 6,000 families with their urban gardens. In the age of Covid-19, the concept of victory gardens, first developed decades ago, has, well, blossomed again. “We’re building communities through our gardening,” Beals says. “We’re helping food banks, yes, but we’re also providing a way for people to go outside and feel safe. We’re giving them an opportunity to put their hands in the earth and forget, for a moment, the pandemic.”
Urban gardening has taken on a renewed relevance as the coronavirus has declared war on us from Los Angeles to New Orleans; Seattle to Saint Louis. People are reaching out to organizations far and wide about how to grow their own food for a wide array of reasons: concern about food supply chain vulnerabilities, frightened of going to the grocery store for lettuce they could potentially grow themselves, eager to be more self-sufficient, or looking to help their neighborhood by donating food to local food banks.
“The gardens are helping people find peace in this uncertain time,” says Kenya Fredie, the supervisor of Seattle’s P-Patch Community Gardening Program. “We need to open our hearts and connect with the struggles of those most vulnerable.” That connection, Fredie believes, can involve carrots, corn, kale, and more. It’s a refrain heard from gardeners across the country. “I think we’ll come out of this,” notes Margee Green, the executive director of Sprout NOLA, a farmer and gardener training program based in New Orleans, “with a lot more people understanding the sacrifices that farm workers make every day and the importance of supporting agriculture that is in harmony with nature, and closer to them.”
It can be as close as an abandoned lot down the street. As close as a churchyard. As close as one’s backyard or, closer still, the kitchen sill where a few pots of herbs can grow.
Matt Schindler, of St. Louis’ Gateway Greening points to the emotional benefits as well. “It’s therapy,” he says of gardening. “Nature can relax you. Everyone is stressed out right now. Getting into the soil is a need.” Small victories, then, for growing cucumbers for a dinner salad, being able to dig up one’s own potatoes, and pluck homegrown strawberries with one’s children.
The concept of a victory garden started over 100 years ago during World War I. They were called ‘war gardens.’ President Woodrow Wilson said, “Food will win the war,” and so, hearing those words, Americans grew food to help win the war. The national campaign resulted in 5 million gardens created on public and private lands, which generated an estimated 1.45 million quarts of canned fruits and vegetables.
Though public gardens waned after the war they took on new meaning again as World War II blazed around the globe. Called ‘victory gardens,’ over 20 million gardens were planted in the United States alone during WWII. Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the grounds of the White House while Julie Beals’ grandparents were planting seed outside London. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park had a victory garden. There were gardens in Manhattan. Nationally, approximately 9 to 10 million tons of food were grown, the equivalent of 40 percent of the entire nation’s food supply of fruits and vegetables. Two gardens from that era still exist: Dowling Community Garden is in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Fenway Victory Garden continues in Boston, Massachusetts.
Today’s community gardens are now bursting. Interest has skyrocketed. In March, seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Company sold more seed than at any time in its history. The company is 144-years-old. Territorial Seed Company had to temporarily stop taking orders over the phone because of a surge in demand. Johnny’s Select Seeds saw a 27 percent jump in orders the week of March 16, the week President Trump declared a national emergency over COVID-19. “There is way more interest,” Margee Green says in New Orleans. “There is so much interest and it’s heartbreaking in a way,” adds Los Angeles’s Julie Beals. “We can only do so much with the pandemic and social distancing.”
Access to gardens has been limited, nationwide. Volunteer hours have dropped significantly. Workshops, classes, and meet ups have been cancelled. Urban gardening organizations are doing their best with work arounds, including creating YouTube tutorials, having Zoom meetings, putting plant sales online with curbside pickups, doing safe drops of produce at food banks, and doing anything they can to connect veteran and new urban growers with the earth.
In St. Louis, Gateway Greening supports communities in their gardening efforts by providing materials, tools, soils, volunteers, advice, and more. A silver lining of Covid-19 is that the organization has developed an entirely new program specific to backyard gardening. They’re now offering “Build-A-Bed” kits of varying types. They’re raised bed packages so that purchasers can start their own gardens at their houses. The kits sold out in two hours. It’s a good problem for Matt Schindler to have. “It’s exciting to see people so excited.”
In Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood, a local farmer and his family took on the challenge of a vacant lot that needed work done before it could be considered usable for edible gardening. It was an overgrown mess, festooned with weeds. Beal was amazed when they cleared the whole area, some 2 acres, in less than a week. The land will be terraced and planted. It’s a vacant lot no longer.
There are leeks in Los Angeles and lettuce in St. Louis. There are strawberries in Seattle and pole beans in New Orleans. “We want people to see how this knits us together,” Green says of garden life, post-pandemic. Beals’ grandparents would be proud. Another victory garden, of sorts. “To have people slow down.” Schindler says of the benefits. “To focus on friends and family over food you grew yourself.”