Till We Meet Again // The Resurgence of the Victory Garden

By Alli Schuchman

If you’ve noticed more gardens popping up around the island (and on your friends’ Facebook feeds), that’s because there’s a budding trend in our midst.

According to the National Gardening Association, the number of households that currently grow food has risen 200 percent since 2008. Since the novel coronavirus took hold, changing both the economic and food security landscape, the number of folks exploring (and expanding) gardening has skyrocketed. Seed companies and gardening, hardware and grocery stores have happily watched seed demand grow. It’s a movement that gardening advocates hope will continue.

Running to the supermarket for salad fixings hasn’t always been the norm. In 1944, near the end of World War II, more than 20 million victory gardens produced 8 million tons of food, nearly 40 percent of the fresh fruits and veggies eaten in the United States. Not only did the backyard- and community-grown produce help feed families, it significantly cut down on packaging as well as the need for food transport—considerations that were especially important during wartime.

But the need to feed a booming population saw the advent of industrial farming and agriculture, leading to a sharp drop-off in the number of home gardeners. Along with factory farming’s well-intentioned efficiencies and conveniences, however, its mechanization and chemical inputs took a toll on farmers, topsoil and the nutritional richness of the food itself—an intersection of circumstances that have led to many of us to revisit the wisdom (and fun!) of the backyard garden.

“When you get your hands in the dirt, you are actually interacting with soil microbes, you’re actually absorbing feelgood chemicals that go into your whole blood-brain system,” said islander Melinda Barnes, passionate gardener and creator of eatingbuckets.com, a blog about gardening, farming and cooking. “Right off you start to feel better, breathing fresh air, being out amongst the trees, getting sunshine and true vitamin D. And then there’s this crazy beautiful joy that happens.”

Barnes said that people start to get jazzy. “They get full of dopamine; they get full of endorphins.”

Barnes, who grew up on the island, said that Bainbridge’s unique microclimate is an ideal place to grow food. And she grows a lot. She and her husband, Brian Thompson, live on a five-acre heritage farmstead in Eagledale, raising two children and a small flock of chickens and tending to their heritage orchards and permaculture gardens.

“Permaculture is simply a fancy buzzword for permanent agriculture. It just means that you think long term about the systems that support your food,” she said. Part of her mission (in addition to growing the lion’s share of her family’s food) is to demystify and reintroduce thinking about growing food as something that’s a natural thing to do.

Barnes said the good news for those of us who want to try our (green) thumb at gardening is that we can’t really mess up. Even if we experience some fails, the risk is relatively low, because seeds, even high-quality organic heirloom varieties, are inexpensive.

“Get a little seed packet like lettuce, put a few seeds in, and then wait, and put a few more of those same seeds,” she said. “That’s succession planting. All it means is that you plant some and then maybe 10 days later you plant some more and so all year long, you’re getting a real bonus of extra food. Instead of feeling like once you’ve planted your garden for the year, that you’re done, you can keep going.”

In addition to a fear of failure, a barrier for a lot of people, said Barnes, is seeing what other people have in their gardens and not wanting to eat that kind of food. “I tell them, ‘Grow what you love to eat!’” Don’t like kale? Grow potatoes!

She also pointed out that gardens can be grown in small spaces; you don’t need acreage like hers to get started. “You can do tons of verticals, like on a trellis for all of your squash, your cucumbers, all your tomatoes. You can grow a ton of food that way.”

For the island’s plant hardiness zone, 8B, radishes (Barnes recommends the Easter Basket mix from rareseeds.com) are an easy, forgiving, quick-yielding—just 28 days from seed to harvest!—place to start. Barnes likes to sauté them with a good olive oil, some salt and pepper. She said that even people who don’t like the “bite” of a radish will quickly become converts.

But then she said something that really caught my attention: salsa garden. It falls into the category of what she calls Big Yum. “That might sound like a big step up,” but, she assured me, “it’s totally not. A lot of our local gardening stores still have pepper starts, but you can also start your own really easily on the windowsill. Then throw some tomatoes in there.” Cilantro and onions round out the salsa garden. (As a prudent next step, I watched her @eatingbuckets Instagram tutorial on how to make homemade corn tortillas and chips.) Bring on summertime!

To get inspired, Barnes suggested taking a look at seedsavers.org. The nonprofit has grown, saved and shared its heirloom seeds since 1975 and has a seed bank with more that 20,000 rare, open-pollinated varieties. For instance, you might explore an heirloom variety of hardy lettuce and find out that a couple in Oklahoma in the 1890s were the ones that were first responsible for growing it.

Barnes’ other tips include: Plant plenty of greens, like kale and lettuces, which even through the winter will continue to grow under a simple hoop house. Add herbs to your plantings which can be grown with minimal sunlight. Make things easy on yourself by planting a little closer to your house so that you can see your garden and easily water it.

And, perhaps most importantly, “just grow what you like to eat.” According to Barnes, if you spend time in your garden and eat what you grow, you’ll be “super happy.” That definitely sounds like a victory.