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Growing Victory Gardens: The History and Future of Food Security

We've always taken a lighthearted tone on our gardening blog, and we've even poked fun at growing vegetable, herb, and fruit plants for the Zombie Apocalypse. But as the world battles COVID-19 and prepares for the inevitable economic after-effects, we're not messing around. 

Gardening is serious business when times get tough. Other than the run on toilet paper and cleaning products, our supply chain is doing a pretty good job of adjusting to new purchasing patterns but nobody knows for certain how the economy will affect our ability to access nutritious food. We decided this was the perfect time to look at how Americans have rallied in the past, and help our readers be better prepared for the near future. 

The history of victory gardens

Most of us associate victory gardens with WWII, but it was the Great War and billionaire Charles Lathrop Pack that first inspired Americans to offset food shortages by growing a portion of their own food. Back then, they were called "war gardens," and they produced food to support our troops overseas. Here in the states, citizens scrambled to convert backyards, parks, vacant lots, and schoolyards to compensate for our allies' farmlands, which had either become battlefields or neglected by a decimated labor force. By the end of the war, more than eight million war gardens had produced 1.4 million quarts of canned produce

The Second World War

In 1942, the Emergency Price Control Act set the groundwork for food rationing, which the U.S. government put in place on March 1, 1943. Once again, labor shortages and supply shipments to our soldiers and allies threatened domestic food security. President Roosevelt, through Executive Order 9066, confined Japanese Americans to internment camps from 1942 to 1945, which probably didn't help; before the war, Japanese immigrants and their families, through small farms and cheap labor, generated as much as 35% of our country's produce. On top of all that, trucks and fuel were taken out of the fields and diverted to transporting soldiers and military supplies — not food for domestic use. 

Before the war, the U.S. population hovered around 132 million. In 1943 alone, 20 million victory gardens produced 40% of all produce consumed here in the states. 

Talk about stepping up to the plate!

Should we be planning victory gardens in the COVID-19 crisis?

Hop on social media, and you'll start seeing a lot more posts and videos about growing gardens, preserving food, and preparing meals from basic staple items. Are people confined to their homes looking for new hobbies? That's probably part of it. But history tells us that food prices spike in times of crisis. While our leaders assure us that we're not at risk of shortages, there are other factors in play. Here are just a few: 

  • Restaurants are closing, and commodity producers are stuck with rotting produce; how will they scale future crops? 
  • Social distancing is altering consumer purchasing patterns.
  • Much of our produce is imported, and about 50% of those imports are fruits and vegetables packaged for retail consumer use. According to the USDA, rising household incomes have increased the volume over the past 20 years. Mexico and Canada are our largest suppliers, closely followed by the European Union. Chile, Brazil, and Colombia lead South America's role in our supply chain. How will global politics and economies affect our food availability? 
  • Farmer's markets are taking a hit due to social distancing, hurting small farmers who are already operating on razor-thin margins.
  • Distribution logistics remain wonky as logistics pros try to anticipate trends. And we say "wonky" because "chaos" is just too scary. 
  • There is a shortage of farm and processing laborers.

All of these can affect our food security on a global scale but on an individual level? If you're like most Americans (or world citizens in general), you're probably wondering, "how can I pay for food if I'm scrambling to pay my rent and mortgage?"

woman with mask loading groceries into car

And that, dear readers, is why we should be thinking of growing victory gardens in the age of the novel coronavirus. Not only can we offset our own grocery bills and insulate ourselves against potential supply chain disruptions, but we can also rally as communities with neighborhood co-ops, be in a better position to help less-fortunate folks, and — just by getting out, getting physical exercise, and getting our minds off the world — we can reduce stress. 

Nutrient-dense, space-saving victory garden varieties

Last spring we wrote an article about gardening in small spaces, and another about growing vertical gardens. Both should put you on the right path to maximizing your gardening space. But which fruits and vegetables pack the most nutritious punch per square foot? 

Fact: WWII victory gardens introduced easy-to-grow kohlrabi and Swiss chard to backyard gardeners. 

We've selected a few varieties that store well, are easy to grow in almost every growing zone, and don't take up too much space in the typical backyard. Most adapt well to container growing. 

Amaranth: Most of us don't have large acreage and tools for cultivating cereal grains, but we've got room for amaranth. Love Lies Bleeding is an ornamental variety, but its leaves are edible and you can cook and eat the seeds without using a mill. 

Leafy greens: Tender salad greens will cheer us up during the growing season, but spinach, kale, and chard can be blanched and frozen for winter. Make sure you give them shade in the summer. You can always grow a couple of flats indoors or outside and harvest them as "baby greens." 

Vining winter squash: You can train small, productive varieties to climb trellises, and support larger squash fruits using netting. Once you harvest them, cure them in the sun for up to 10 days to prolong their storage. 

Pole beans: Once again, you can make use of vertical space by growing successive crops of pole beans for pickling, canning, or freezing. 

Cole crops: These include dark green leafy vegetables such as mustard greens and kale, but they also include bok choi, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussel sprouts. Calabrese, purple sprouting, and Waltham 29 are good choices for the backyard gardener. Pak choi is bok choi, harvested when it's young and tender. 

Tomatoes: Grow smaller varieties "Topsy-Turvy" style using purchased or DIY hanging tomato containers. If you leave the container tops open, plant basil! They're great companion plants. 

We recommend planting both indeterminate and determinate varieties: The former produces fruit throughout the season, while the latter puts its energy into growth, and producing a crop of fruits at roughly the same time. This is great if you want fresh tomatoes to eat during summer, and a bunch ready to go at canning time. 

Turnips: Summer-planted turnips can stay in the ground well into winter, and frost makes them sweeter. They tolerate heavy soils better than carrots or parsnips do as long as it's loosened to at least 18" below ground and amended with organic matter. Turn in about two inches of sand for heavy clay soils. Cook turnip greens as you would collards, spinach, or kale. Note that varieties labeled as "turnip greens" don't produce edible roots, but they're great cool-season crops if you're not a fan of the bulb varieties. 

A few words about heirlooms vs. hybrids

If you plan on saving seeds for next season, you should know that hybrids don't reproduce true-to-type. Consider both, though; some hybrids are excellent performers or are developed for smaller spaces and shorter growing seasons. Learn more from our article, "Quick Facts about Hybrid, Heirloom, and GMO Plants." 

Don't forget your herbs

Most culinary herbs are easy to grow in a sunny window or patio containers. We don't think we need to explain the importance of seasoning, but we will anyway: If you've stocked up on dry goods and produce with a long storage life, fresh herbs or home-dried seasonings help with variety and up its "comfort food" game. Most culinary herbs add to a meal's vitamin and mineral value, and many don't require high volumes to help promote healthy digestion, reduce inflammation, and boost immune systems. 

We always warn our readers to approach medicinal herbs with plenty of caution and common sense, and we're sticking to it. Having said that, we'd encourage you to check with your doctor and make sure the following stress-reducing herbs won't conflict with your current medications or health status.

  • Chamomile
  • St. John's Wort
  • Lavender
  • Passionflower
  • Lemon balm
  • Valerian
  • Tulsi (holy) basil

We're all a little tense these days. Growing your own vegetables will nourish your body and help replenish your food stores, but your mental wellness should be an equal priority.

It's never too late to start a victory garden

We've all got a lot going on, and scrambling to get a garden started this spring might be more than you're able to pull off. Don't worry, you can always plant late-season varieties, and in the meantime, you can break ground on and condition new beds, build up your compost pile, and scrounge up some used or new gardening tools. We cover these topics (and more) in our gardening blog, and we're always here to answer your questions

We're doing our best to meet your demand for quality garden seeds

The seed retail industry is experiencing an enormous demand for herb, fruit, and vegetable seeds, and while we smaller outfits aren't getting hit as hard as the "big guys," we're feeling it too — especially since, to ensure freshness and optimal germination, we only keep enough seeds in our inventory to meet expected demand for a single season. And nobody expected the numbers we're seeing this year. We highly recommend that our customers order seeds while they're in stock, or contact us to find out when we'll get a new supply of out-of-stock varieties. We apologize for any delays in our normally lightning-fast shipping; we're a small family business and we're scrambling as best as we can to take care of our valued customers! 

In the meantime, take care of yourselves and your loved ones, and let them take care of you. Use gardening as a way to build a resilient community among friends and neighbors, and consider donating surplus produce to a local food bank, senior center, or other outreach programs. Have extra seedlings? Arrange a swap! And if you've been at this a while, you can always mentor new gardeners in your area. 

We'll get through this!

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