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Victory Gardens: Covid-19 Edition

Victory Gardens: Covid-19 Edition

It was mid-March, 2020 when the United States was declared to be in a national state of emergency. What in many states began as a two week stay at home order has, over a year and a half later, left us unsure when an overall state of normalcy will return. This time of hardship brought about a myriad of activities, hobbies and literally anything else to occupy our time. Do you remember all the obscure interests you undertook over the past year? Our sourdough starters have been spoiled for months now taking up space in our fridge. Likewise, the puzzles and board games we impulse bought during the initial lockdown are now gathering dust in our closets. All that workout equipment aimed to keep you in shape while gyms were closed is now preventing you from parking in the garage. How much of our culture will be informed by this endemic moving forward?

However, there is one thing that boomed in popularity during the pandemic that has historical precedent to stick around moving forward. Gardening. With many people either working or schooling from home, an outdoor escape was high on our collective mind. Traveling was discouraged, going to stores became an almost terrifying feat and our ability to control our own lives dwindled. Insert gardening. Generally speaking, gardening is an outdoor activity that requires some amount of physical activity as well as the mental capacity to plan and think ahead while still acting in the moment.

Pandemic gardening, however, was not limited to personal plots in people’s backyards. With a majority of American’s living in urban areas, land to actually plant on was at a premium in many places. Some of us set up elaborate balcony gardens made up of potted plants suited for their specific zone. Others filled every bit of window sill space they had with plant life. I personally, joined the Bellingham Parks and Recreation department as a volunteer steward looking after a local rose garden. What started during the first months of lockdown as myself and a woman who went by the moniker “Z”, quickly grew to a baker’s dozen of us tending a park roughly the size of a basketball court. Point being, gardening became a very popular hobby to pick up during these troubling times. Whatever path you chose, gardening became a national phenomenon during the past two years.

So much so has gardening skyrocketed to popularity that we are now observing supply chain shortages for basic gardening materials like seeds. So many people are starting to sew their own plots that gardening supplies are experiencing historical demand increases. “The closest before COVID hit was during Y2K, and Y2K was this little blip compared to this,” so says Nikos Kavanya, a purchaser for the Fedco Seeds organization. Unlike many other industries, Fedco has had to increase their number of employees and workable hours. Kavanya stated their facilities typically reach their daily order limit “within 10 minutes”. Thankfully the supply chain issues appear to be focused more on a shortage of workers and less a shortage of seeds themselves. But this does beg the questions of; why is gardening so popular and is this a new phenomenon?

To answer the first question, a more detailed explanation can be found in my next blog “How a Green Thumb Can Combat the Blues”. In short, gardening has long since been linked to multiple health benefits, both physical and psychological. For starters, plants create clean oxygen which we not only need to breathe in, but fresh air can also help improve your mood. Similarly, as your mother has been telling you since childhood, eating your veggies is good for you! Not only does eating a higher percentage plant based diet help you lose weight/maintain physical fitness, but living a healthier lifestyle can have monumental impacts on mental well-being as well. Gardening also provides an opportunity to get outside and do something physical with one’s free time. I’m sure most if not all of you reading have lifted a bag of soil before, but if not, those things are heavy! Not only is gardening a physical activity, but it also can expose the gardener to sunlight which has been linked to the brains’ release of serotonin. However, gardening is far from just a physical activity. Planning is an integral part of a successful gardening venture. This act of planning out a garden can increase the agency one has over this specific aspect of their lives and doesn’t that sound pretty great right now? Gardening is also an art form! Gardeners have the ability to plan out and scale their garden to their individual specifications essentially creating a personalized tangible work of art. While there are outside factors that can impact one’s gardening success, generally speaking the overall health and realization of a garden space is entirely up to the gardener.

To answer the second question, we must take a look back into history. It turns out, gardening in times of hardship is not an original idea. “Liberty Gardens” were a concept that originated out of World War 1 when the food supply chain experienced a massive disruption. Come World War 2, the idea came back around except this time known as “Victory Gardens”. Fast forward to the end of the millennium and 1999’s Y2K scare, when people turned to farming for fear of widespread computer failures. Lastly on our farming timeline, we have the Covid-19 pandemic creating a large scale need for individuals to grow their own food and regain agency over their lives. Gardening in times of trouble is not a new concept and while the reasons behind each boom may be different, the idea of gardening in response to hardships is almost a tradition at this point.

Liberty Gardens, was an idea brought about in the United States by the Wilson administration in response to the growing need to support the war effort. Much of the meat and grains produced on American soil was in one way or another going to assist our servicemen overseas. Railroads and other traditional means of food distribution were also shifting their focus to help with the war. By shipping food stuffs as well as servicemen from one place to another, this change greatly cut into the ability to distribute food to communities across the country. In an attempt to rally individuals to help the cause as well as solving the new found lapse in the food supply chain, citizens were prompted to grow their own fruits and vegetables to eat. Not only did this provide citizens with suitable food stuffs, it also gave them both an opportunity to help with the war effort while also giving them something they could control during a time of uncertainty. Domestically there was even an effort to enlist children into the gardening boom. The Bureau of Education enacted a U.S. School Garden Army (USSGA) to mobilize school aged children as “soldiers of the soil” in attempts to get as many citizens growing their own food as possible.

Victory Gardens, likewise were an effort to sure up the food supply chain that was once again thrown into disarray due to the war. Shortages again became a huge issue as a majority of commercial food production went to help allied troops. Food rationing was brought about in the spring of 1942 creating an even larger need for individuals to grow their own food. This practice became so widespread that Eleanor Roosevelt famously planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn. By 1944 an estimated 20 million victory gardens had been planted across the United States producing near 8 million tons of food. Interestingly, this time of widespread gardening increased the popularity of greenhouses in places like the United Kingdom as the climate is less than  hospitable to year round food production. The UK specifically has always and continues to struggle with meeting their food demands via domestic production alone. The introduction of hobby sized greenhouses greatly ramped up their ability to provide for themselves as the harsh climate became less of a mitigating factor.

Come the turn of the century, many people began buying up gardening equipment at an unprecedented rate. There was no war, at least not one to the scale of the two World Wars, but all the same gardening was the response many had to an impending threat. This threat, the Y2K panic, was essentially a large scale conspiracy theory that claimed a computer programing shortcut was going to cause wide spread devastation as the millennium came to and end. Feeling a sense of panic, people turned to something they knew, something they could control, gardening.

That brings us to today, the Covid-19 pandemic. A feeling of losing control began to sweep across the nation at an unprecedented rate. Like previous times of hardship, food supply chains began to feel strained by the sudden change experienced during the lockdowns and spread prevention measures observed. As a response, American citizens began to do what they seem to always do when things get tough and feel out of our control, we rolled up our sleeves and began to garden! People seek now to provide themselves with something to do as much as growing food for their families. Hobby greenhouses have become quite the hot commodity, giving many in the Pacific Northwest a means to grow all year round! More importantly giving them something to do as this winter season sets upon us. If you or someone you know wants to help stave off boredom, grow some food, or just learn a bit more about gardening send them our way, Charley’s is always glad to help!


-Brian Bill

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