As the coronavirus pandemic shook up food supply chains and taught society social distancing, many turned to tilling the earth for food as people did a few generations ago in the victory garden movement.
Victory gardens were vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted at homes and in public parks during World Wars I and II.
During World War II around one-third of vegetables came from the gardens and by May 1943 there were 18 million victory gardens in the U.S.
Pandemic victory gardeners gained more than tomatoes and eggplants for their meals. Gardeners say they found respite and resilience. They cultivated perseverance and a sense of adventure in their backyards.
“From my perspective, the victory gardens truly was a effort to cultivate community at a time when we were feeling scared, isolated, and unsure of the very basic needs that we all rely upon,” said Lucine Sihelnik, City Council vice president who led a task force to connect residents to garden resources.
The task force included the city, DS Smith, the Food Trust of Philadelphia, the Berks History Center, Reading’s Environmental Advisory Council, Berks Nature, the Berks Conservation District, Penn State Cooperative Extension and the Berks County Master Gardeners.
Many people participated in pandemic victory gardens.
Funds from The Friends of Reading Hospital supplied 250 city residents with victory garden “kick-start kits,” which included vegetable starts and bilingual educational pamphlets.
Berks History Center has links to personal stories, history and gardening information at https://bit.ly/3li5iEC. The city also has an account of the program at https://www.readingpa.gov/content/victory-gardens.
On a personal level, Sihelnik said it was satisfying for her to grow a garden in her back yard with her son.
“Victory gardens united us when we felt so far away from each other,” Sihelnik said. “Growing your own food is empowering not only for the self but together as a community. It reminds us to pay attention to our food systems, to agriculture, to the environment, and, most of all, each other.”
Here are four gardener’s experiences:
Tanya Melendez, Reading
The kit given by the history center in the spring became a larger project for Tanya Melendez, 45, of Margaret Street, and her daughter, Camila Carrasquillo-Melendez, 6. She received different plants than her neighbor and they shared their bounty.
“The neighbor across the street, she put hers in the front yard and I had mine out in the side yard,” said Melendez.
Her neighbor had sweet potatoes, which Melendez didn’t. She had tomato and eggplant and added green beans and bush beans. The arugula and spinach did well. The carrots did not. The beets grew well, too, she said.
Melendez said she had often grown plants in pots but this year was the first time she planted in her yard. It was exciting, she said.
Melendez, whose parents run Tropical Bakery in Reading, and her daughter took to the garden, learning together how to make it fruitful and bountiful. Melendez is also a member of the 18th Wonder Improvement Association Neighborhood Alliance.
“It gave us a sense of control over what was happening,” Melendez said. “People were talking about food shortages and it was one of those things where we said ‘we will have at least tomatoes and lettuce.’ ”
But they had much more.
Camila gained a deep sense of where food comes from. She, a very science-oriented kid, gravitated toward the compost, learning how it was created and maintained. She hated arugula but loved the sweet peas, eating them right off the plant.
“That was the one redeeming thing about this summer: We couldn’t go anywhere but we could go weeding in the garden,” Melendez said.
Weeding halted when Camila’s plastic dinosaurs went to live in the garden.
The garden was a respite from Tanya’s stressful work in customer service at the bakery. She was dealing with the public at the same time as everyone was trying to understand how to protect themselves from the virus.
Melendez credits other victory gardeners she connected with on Facebook for helping save her carrots from rabbits.
Sharing with neighbors was the best part, she said. Beetle bores may have killed most of her zucchini plants but she was able to grow one large enough to share: a quarter to make bread, a quarter for stir fry and the rest given to neighbors.
“I’m definitely going to do it again,” Melendez said.
She’s kept a record of this year’s garden and made a map for future planting. She plans to plant her tomatoes in stages so she will have tomatoes for more of the summer.
The neighbor did not want to be identified.
Tony Veloz, Reading
The eggplant didn’t grow, but the carrots did for Tony Veloz, 28, who shares an apartment near 10th and Spring streets with his girlfriend, whose name was not provided.
Veloz, a music teacher and community leader in the South of Penn neighborhood, found himself with a little more time on his hands.
“Basically when the pandemic started I had to start working from home. We all know that story,” Veloz said. “Because I had extra time, I kind of picked up gardening as a pandemic hobby.”
He received a victory garden and a planter but he took the project further.
It turns out, because of his organizing work with the South of Penn, he has been researching gardening and composting. With a background in biochemistry and science, he was intrigued by the idea of growing things from kitchen waste, and experimented with carrot tops.
The tops became treats for his guinea pigs.
“It was really cool,” Veloz said. “Just growing stuff you realize you can do this stuff on your own.”
It’s a lot of effort and it’s exciting to watch nature unfold.
“You plant a seed with no idea if it’s going to grow,” Veloz said. “And then you have a seedling. And you have a whole plant that blew up before your eyes.”
JoAnn Morrell, Rockland Township
JoAnn Morrell, 45, a clothing designer, yoga instructor and musician, saw venues for her spring shows shut down and turned to gardening, something she never had time to do. She made a small raised bed with herbs, radishes, chard, beets and more.
“My tomatoes just went wild,” said Morrell of Rockland Township. She had so many she shared them with her mother. She froze kale for later.
Things went so well, even as work became busier, she decided to make a fall garden that included broccoli and arugula.
She also foraged with a friend and made chestnut cream.
“It was just nice,” she said. “I had a plenty of time to devote to more things.”
Samantha Wolfe Shaak, Spring Township
The Wilson School District family and consumer science teacher has also been homesteader for three years, growing food for her family. When it seemed as if the pandemic would disrupt food supply chains, she decided to expand her garden.
The gardening and preserving was all consuming this year, she said. Raspberries, asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons and squash are just some of vegetables and fruits she grew.
“It’s a commitment. When you have a garden of this size it is nearly a full-time job,” she said, adding she would not have been able to do it without the job she has that afforded her the summer off.
But the payoff was food security. The fruits of 32 tomato plants enabled the family of five to have tomato sauce for a year. It reduces the environmental and financial costs of shipping — and she knows exactly what is in the sauce.
Shaak said she was surprised by the shortages of gardening supplies in the spring as people flocked to dig into the hobby.
The shortages didn’t put a damper on the community spirit that came with the victory garden.
“Typically I give away all of my extras,” she said. “When you are in this network of victory gardens — there’s a couple on my street — it really is a community of sharing.”
She said the quarter acre garden and chickens is enough. They are set to continue to trial sweet corn and maybe plant more fruit.
“Once you get beyond all the labor involved, the positive impact on the world is a pretty big deal,” Shaak said.