Victory Gardens Should be Permanent Fixtures of Every Household
Social distancing and orders to stay home have led to new hobbies and pastimes the world over. But my favorite new trend is the desire to grow your own food. The resurgence of Victory Gardens – the World War I movement to reduce pressure on the food systems by growing food at home – is a welcome sight, not just during COVID-19, but at a point in time when we have pushed our expectations of the global food system to the extreme.
When we take the time to assess our space, foster healthy growing conditions, and practice patience in growing, we learn a lot about the global food system and our part in it. When you go through the long, yet rewarding process of growing your own food, you will undoubtedly begin to appreciate what goes into feeding billions.
Victory Gardens just make sense. While the average household can’t produce its own medicine or toilet paper, each of us is capable of growing our own food. If you have a yard, porch, or even a sunny windowsill, try growing your own food.
It Brings Joy
Gardening at home reduces stress, saves money, lowers your environmental impact, and is a great activity for the entire family.
I enjoy the thoughtful, therapeutic time spent planning, innovating, seeding and weeding. As part of my morning ritual, and again before the end of the day, I check on my garden to see what has changed and enjoy the peace and fresh air.
It Saves Money
The financial savings come by growing things that are particularly expensive in the store. I know I save a dollar every time I pluck a cucumber or pepper. The street value of the basil I grow is over $100 – at $2.50 per basil plant cup in the store, my twelve-foot-long row is a gold mine.
Fewer trips to the grocery store and less food waste mean we’re lowering our environmental impact as a family. Instead of driving to the store for swiss chard that was also driven to the store, I’m taking it directly from garden to table.
Where to Start
First Things First – Start with Healthy Soil
I have been adding compost to my garden every year for over ten years. It’s my kids’ job to take the compost out to the container every day. Each Spring it yields a few trash cans full of compost. Whether you decide to make your own compost or not, the important thing is to make sure you’re using healthy soil. One of the biggest challenges we face working with smallholder farmers in the developing world is the result of years of soil mistreatment and degradation. If the soil contains no nutrients, then crops cannot thrive.
Get to Know Your Space
Having gardened the same plot for many years, I have come to see gardening as an ongoing exploration into what can grow well in your location with the least effort and problems. I often say listen to the land. My garden has told me many times that tomatoes don’t fare well here because of the limited space and sun, and the unlimited chipmunks and squirrels. But my garden also tells me that with just a little effort, I can get massive loads of basil, cucumbers, beets, collards and chard.
Another piece of advice I share with new gardeners is to begin thinking both perennially and vertically. Thinking vertically means using your space well. Use trellises and string to get things like peas, cukes, squash, and other vines growing up – not out. Think about what root crops can fill the depths of the soil, which crops can cover the surface and which will tower above. Thinking perennially means integrating plants that’ll produce throughout the year and will survive for multiple years. I have planted several rows of perennial herbs in my front yard. I’m already harvesting perennial herbs – greek oregano, lemon balm, winter thyme, rosemary and both onion chives and garlic chives – when others are just starting to sow their seeds.
Choosing What to Plant
I really enjoy the process of deciding what to grow. I have consulted thousands and thousands of farmers over the years on this very question. Every year for my own small plots, I make sketches to forecast the best scenarios. My advice is to consider planting crops that are either particularly expensive in the store, that you eat often, or which have high pesticide contamination.
Pound for pound, foot for foot, it makes no sense for me to grow cabbage. I can get an entire head at the store for $0.99, and growing it would take a long time and eat up a lot of space. Growing one’s own sugar snap peas, basil, and swiss chard, on the other hand, are good investments in time, water and space.
Each year the Environmental Working Group publishes a study showing the dirty dozen – the top 12 foods containing pesticide residue. Among this dirty dozen you’ll find strawberries, kale, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and celery. If you aren’t finding organic options for these, then you should probably consider growing your own.
Once you decide the primary crops you want to plant, then think through the companion crops that will enhance them – see our guide for a full list of companion plants. The main goal is to have a set of vegetable plants working together as much as possible. And remember – you want to rotate crops in each part of your garden by growing vegetables from other families in order to disrupt the life cycle of crop-specific bugs and to change up the nutrient demand on the soil.
A Peek Inside My Garden
Row 1: Carrots and spring onions
I let each kid pick one thing to plant. Beverly loves carrots, and Mack likes broccoli (yes, I know, it’s an anomaly). Beverly has the shortest arms so the carrots get planted in the first row. A good companion plant for carrots is spring onions. We’ve planted them several times. Despite their slow start, having abundant onion tops to harvest throughout the year (yes, they are super hardy) is a nice addition to just about any meal that benefits from some onion.
Row 2: Broccoli and spicy bush basil
My 11-year-old likes to dip broccoli in ranch dressing, so I’m happy to dedicate the second row to broccoli. I know cabbage worms may be a challenge so I’ll separate the broccoli plants with spicy bush basil plants to keep the broccoli leaves from touching each other and minimize any potential future cabbage worm problem. I know we’ll end up eating all the broccoli we grow. I particularly love the spicy bush basil because it keeps its smell and taste when dried.
Row 3: Swiss chard
My family seems to prefer swiss chard to every other green I’ve tried to feed them over the years. We’ve tried collards, spinach, mustard greens, kale, bok choy and others, and swiss chard has proven to be both the family’s favorite and the easiest to grow. I direct seed the large seeds in the third row, spacing each seed an inch or two from it’s neighbor. I’ll decide later in the season if I want to thin them or not. I freeze the chard in ziplock bags with other diced veggies for easy-to-make side dishes throughout the winter.
Row 4: Basil
Basil – in the garden and in containers – has performed well over the years and I’m hoping to freeze enough pesto to last through the winter. I’ve tried many types and prefer the thick and fleshy Italian large leaf. It smells up the entire house when we make pasta or pesto.
Row 5: Cucumbers
For some reason cucumbers perform exceptionally well in my garden. The key is to keep air moving in the humid months to avoid powdery mildew, a fungal problem that forms when the conditions are hot and muggy enough. The plants need a lot of space, so I won’t fill an entire row with them. There are a lot of options to fill in the gaps among vines; I think I’ll do sugar snap peas because they are expensive in the store, they are a good companion plant for the cukes, and they can benefit from the same trellis.
After you start with standard vegetables described in my garden this year, you’ll be ready to layer on asparagus, horseradish or potatoes down below, herbs like oregano and thyme on the surface, and more tall plants like sunflowers and okra to end with layers upon layers of food growing together. You will learn what works for you and your family. I found out that my family likes swis chard and that when we grow lettuce, I use so much water cleaning it that it dampens my enthusiasm for growing more. As I write in my book One Shot, agriculture is just as much culture as it is agri, and making agriculture work for you and your family is the goal.
I’m happy to have you joining me in creating your own home garden and I encourage you to continue long after this resurgence of Victory Gardens has faded away. Together, we are creating a much needed shift in the global food system. So, let’s get planting!
Written April 16, 2020 by John Leary – Trees for the Future Executive Director
John is the Executive Director of regenerative agriculture nonprofit Trees for the Future and author of “One Shot: Trees as Our Last Chance for Survival.” You can find more tips and guidance at the Forest Garden Training Center.