Food Anxiety Sparks Renewed Interest in Victory Gardens

By David R. Newman

Planting a vegetable garden is quickly becoming a popular pastime as grocery stores struggle to keep food on the shelves and a Shelter-In-Place order keeps people at home. According to Michael Wirthlin, an avid gardener and sales associate in The Nursery at Dale’s Hardware, “Our numbers show that the vegetable category is up thousands of percent over last year. The only thing limiting our sales is the supply from the growers.”

Indeed, food supply anxiety has swept the nation, and not for the first time. Americans were first introduced to the idea of a “Victory Garden” during World War I, when the government urged citizens to plant in every conceivable plot of land, from empty lots to their own backyards. Propaganda from the National War Garden Commission read, “Prevention of widespread starvation is the peacetime obligation of the United States. … The War Garden of 1918 must become the Victory Garden of 1919.”

The similarities between now and then are striking; the feeling of wartime unity, of rationing, conserving resources, and fighting for the common good, as doctors and nurses do battle on the front lines against an unseen enemy.

Elaine, who manages a community garden and nursery for a Fremont organization known as LEAF, has seen a renewed interest in gardening over the past few years and especially now. At their annual Spring/Summer Plant Sale, which began on April 26, they sold over forty percent of their 3,000 plants in the first week. Says Elaine, “We sold in one week what we normally sell in one month, and I think it has a lot to do with food security. People want to grow everything in their backyards, they want to know where it came from and who touched it.”

An analysis of web search traffic conducted by McConkey, a leading manufacturer and distributor of horticultural goods, shows that the interest in gardening is up fifty percent, especially when it comes to growing vegetables. The report concludes, “people view food as a source of security during a time of uncertainty.” According to Elaine, “The online nursery industry is booming right now.”

During World War II, victory gardens returned in force, producing an estimated forty percent of the country’s vegetables from about 20 million gardens. Says Wirthlin, “In any economic hardship people are food insecure so they turn to growing their own food, from first timers to seasoned farmers.” Wirthlin is in the latter category, having grown crops in his small yard for decades, from tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, to cucumber, lettuce, kale, bok choy, and green beans. He also likes to grow herbs like cilantro, basil, and parsley.

So what to do if you want in on this current trend? Wirthlin advises, “You can start very simply with just a pot, some fresh potting soil, and a dwarf tomato plant. That’ll give you a lot of bang for your buck. You’ll be picking tomatoes all summer long. Or pick an unused plot in your yard, turn it over, and add some compost and organic fertilizer. In a sunny spot you can grow anything you want really.” Raised planters work best for warding off weeds and pests.

With summer just around the corner, many people think it may be too late to start a garden. But the mild Bay Area climate is perfect for planting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables all the way into June. And once harvested, many keep their gardens going through winter by rotating their crop. Says Wirthlin, “There’s no reason to stop. There are any number of cool weather, hardy vegetables that you can plant – leafy greens like kale, anything in the cabbage family like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, or brussel sprouts, root crops like lettuce, beets, carrots, or turnips, maybe some snow peas.”

Undeniably planting a garden is hard work. It takes perseverance and patience and lots of trial and error. During World War II, millions of first-time gardeners gave up after the first year, according to the New York Times. But for those brave enough to try it can be a rewarding experience, and now is the perfect time to plant a “Corona Garden”.

There are a great number of resources to help you on this journey, from YouTube videos to places like LEAF, who rent planters, sell seedlings, and provide free online training and education through their website and blog. What planting zone do we live in? What kind of seeds are there? What is the difference between GMO and non-GMO? What is organic fertilizer? Says Elaine, “Our core value here is community. Everyone who volunteers for us believes in helping others, which is why we donate plants and offer free workshops.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably changed the way we live, especially here in the busy Bay Area. Life moves a little slower now. We have time to appreciate each other. People are cooking and baking more. When we finally prevail over the virus and victory is at hand, how much of this quarantined lifestyle will remain with us? Having a “Corona Garden” will not only feed our body, but may feed our soul as well, serving as a reminder of a time when the world was just a little bit smaller.

LEAF’s Spring/Summer Plant Sale is happening now

Online Plant Sales Catalog: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qJB8oqc6YPkE6sZd0urifPBVHb-KpQNl8vzyVQlOAGY/edit?usp=sharing

(Curbside Pickup at C.R. Stone Garden or Home Delivery)

LEAF C.R. Stone Garden
55 Mowry Ave., Fremont

LEAF rents planters to residents of Fremont, Newark, Sunol, and Union City @

LEAF Center @ California Nursery Historical Park
36501 Niles Blvd., Fremont

More info @ http://www.fremontleaf.org

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