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A "Victory" Garden

In tough and uncertain times, such as the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression, Americans have turned to growing their own food as a way to feel a sense of control over their lives and to be sure they could provide for their families. Now we are experiencing a global pandemic that unsettles and frightens us again. What will happen to our loved ones? Is it safe to go to the store? What will the future look like as we seek to rebuild? What are we going to do with our children at home all day?

Of course we can’t realistically grow all of our own food, nor do we need to; but just a little bit of growing can give us something to look forward to and provide a much-needed sense of movement in a time when it’s natural to feel unsure and unempowered.

My own parents, having lived through both the Depression and World War II, always tilled as much space as they could find and fed us kids from their garden, from the rhubarb and asparagus of spring to winter squashes in the fall. My siblings and I have fond memories (and not) of shucking corn beside the garden and creating corn silk hair-dos for each other. Back in the kitchen we watched Mom boil the ears, cut the kernels from the cobs and stuff the basement freezer with corn much tastier than any we could buy.

Why grow your own food now?

· It’s gratifying to have herbs and veggies in your yard or pots at peak ripeness with no shopping necessary.

· Being outdoors in nature, whether your soundscape includes bird song, cars passing or neighbors talking, is a way to feel connected with the world around us.

· The sun on your body feels good.

· Kids get a kick out of it, learn by doing, and might just have a model for self-sufficiency useful in their own lives – and their own garden memories.

· With luck you can save a buck or two.

One good place to start is with herbs – they’re relatively tough and easy to grow and add so much aroma and flavor to cooking, along with important phytonutrients. They need a lot of sunshine, not-too-rich soil and just enough water to keep them from drying out. You can grow them in the ground or plant several together in a large pot, near the door, ready to pluck while cooking. Choose a large clean pot, at least 10-12 inches wide and 8-10 inches deep so there’s enough room for their roots and an extra half inch of space above the top of the soil to hold water as it percolates into the soil. Be sure to use fresh potting soil and be sure your pot has drainage holes in the bottom (slits are too small) so the plants do not drown. Water gradually until the soil surface looks moist, feels soft, and water drains slowly from the bottom of the pot. Parsley, mint, chives, tarragon and thyme are cold-hardy and can be planted outdoors now. (Mint, chives, thyme and tarragon are perennial and will survive the winter in the ground without protection.) Cilantro, dill and basil need warm weather and can be planted outdoors in June – or perhaps started indoors a few weeks earlier from seed and then transplanted outdoors. Neighbors and recycling bins can be good sources of re-usable plastic pots. With imagination, plastic-lined baskets, old wooden boxes, five-gallon buckets, wheelbarrows and boats are useful.

Gardening with children can be a great activity in these home-bound times. Think both long and short term to hold their attention and keep the rewards coming. Cool weather seeds such as peas, spinach and radishes can go in the ground now. Pea seed are large and easy to handle, though they can take weeks to germinate, especially when it’s cold. Radishes germinate much more quickly, though their seeds are much smaller. Onion sets (tiny inch-long prepared bulbs) are easy for kids to handle and grow quickly. The full-size bulbs are not ready to harvest until late summer, but their vigorously-growing top shoots can be harvested a few at a time for use like scallions on tacos and in dips and salads.

If you have a small garden, six-packs of started plants such as lettuce can provide a more kid-friendly experience. Putting a plant in the earth is different from planting a seed and matures more quickly. Once the plants reach 6-8” tall and start to fill-out, children can begin to harvest some of the outer leaves with scissors, leaving the centers to keep growing. If planting in a pot, three plants per pot would be good spacing for heading-type lettuces. Those with slender leaves can be spaced 4 inches apart.

As the weather warms, bush beans, cucumbers and summer and winter squash are fun to plant. Their seeds are large, and they germinate and grow quickly. In most of New York State, the last week of May or early June is an ideal time. Again, why not plant several bean seeds in a pot? Once they have two sets of leaves, remove the weaker ones and keep the strongest, ideally 4 inches apart. You can share unused seeds with neighbors or save them in a jar until next year.

What’s the most rewarding vegetable to harvest? Potatoes in late summer. Carefully digging up potatoes feels like finding buried treasure. Bury one well-prepared seed potato and see how many more have grown hidden beneath the soil.

Older kids can be strong and motivated enough to do some serious growing. In my career in college admission I recall being floored by one college essay in particular – a young man from Upstate New York raised crops in his yard for his family and a local food pantry.

For me, as a member of Berkshire Farm Center’s Board of Directors, at-home growing feels like a natural return to the agency’s founding over 130 years ago as a safe place for children to leave the stresses of difficult urban lives and learn about nature, agriculture and academics in a nurturing and safe environment. Learning to nurture teaches one to nurture.

Resources: for a planting calendar (for New York State hardiness zones)

see and for tips on growing vegetables in pots

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