How Growing a Victory Garden Saved Me During the Pandemic

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By Alicia Carter Johnson

I spent the summer of 2003 weeding the ruins of a Bronze Age city on the volcanic Greek island of Melos, a stunningly beautiful little rock in the heart of the Aegean Sea. As a lowly graduate student in an archaeology program, my free labor helped reveal the stone walls of the ancient city so they could be documented for posterity. Among other things, I learned quite a lot about weeding, a skill I could not have predicted would later be so handy to me in a suburban town in Connecticut during a global pandemic.

I am not alone in turning to gardening during the time of Covid-19. Garden centers across the country have reported record sales. Gardener’s Supply Company, the online store I use to buy my supplies, is reporting delays in shipping due to “gardeners ordering new supplies at unprecedented levels.” Don’t let this discourage you from jumping on the gardening bandwagon, however. The benefits of starting a garden are many.

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I started planting my garden in the front yard during the first weeks of panic over the new coronavirus, not long after the first case was identified here in the U.S. A news junkie, I had begun to imagine how this all would play out, and I was worried about the breakdown of supply lines, and the potential for food insecurity.

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I reached out to Homefront Farmers, a local company offering extensive services including planting and maintaining the garden for you in its entirety. But, in the end, I decided to work with them as consultants (a more limited range of their services) and do the work myself.

I’m so glad I did, because working out in the garden during the ensuing state lockdown has been one of the few things that consistently has given me joy as I remain socially distant at home with my two small (and very active) boys and my husband who is attempting to work from home.

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My new pastime might have its origin in my anxiety about access to fresh vegetables for my family, but it has become so much more for me. Digging in the dirt, getting my hands dirty—even the weeding—gives me peaceful moments of contemplation and the time to turn over memories of my previous life as an archaeologist.

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Being outside is, in and of itself, a therapeutic break from the hours indoors wrangling children and muddling through eLearning with my kindergartener. I’ve found that caring for the plants, helping them grow, and protecting them from insects and chipmunks is deeply satisfying on an almost spiritual Earth Mother level. And, I do look forward to summer when I get to harvest and cook with the fruits of my labors.

How to Get Started

Firstly, you can plant seeds in just about anything. I happen to be planting in a garden with six raised beds, a space lovingly created by the previous owners of my home, and one that I inherited when we moved here from New York City this past December (most fortunate timing ever). But at the most basic level, all you really need is soil, water, and sunlight to coax a seed or a plant into growing.

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Decide what you want to plant. Pick the things you most like to eat, and you can’t go wrong. I’m thrilled to be growing lettuces, broccoli, tomatoes, onions, and peas. I wish I’d planted some strawberries because I have the dearest memories of picking strawberries with my grandmother when I was a little girl. It would be nice to revisit those comforting memories in my own garden right now.

Buy a few things you’ll need. If you already have a plot of ground prepared for planting, you really just need the seeds or plants and a few basic tools like a spade and a hoe. If you need to prepare a space for your garden, consider paying a local company to till the earth for you or else get ready to work your muscles turning over packed dirt to create an area of loose soil to plant in.

A Few Handy Tips for Starting Your Own Victory Garden

1. Sprinkle organic fertilizer right onto the roots or the seed of anything you’re planting before filling up the hole with soil

2. As soon as you plant, water the soiling on top to settle the ground and get things going

3. Don’t over water. The soil should feel moist if you feel below the top soil, but not soaking

4. Get ready for pests: bugs and animals. Keep birds away with netting. For bugs, there are commercially produced products that definitely work. But there are also more traditional treatments, knowledge of which is passed down over generations. For example, my friend from Greece uses tobacco soaked in a bucket of water to get rid of black flies in potatoes.

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You Can Always Start Indoors

Finally, you can plant an indoor garden if you don’t have access to space outdoors. I’m currently growing lettuces, carrots, hot peppers, and herbs on my kitchen table next to a sunny window. My sons help my water them, and I’ve enjoyed three (small) salads courtesy of the pot of lettuces. If you don’t have any plant pots, you can grow in rinsed out glass jars, or the bottom of an egg carton.

My outdoor garden and my kitchen table garden have been a salvation during the stress of the pandemic, and I encourage you to plant one of your own. There is great relief in taking a moment to tend to the plants. I get outside my own head for a spell, and I can take a breather from contemplating the uncertain future by focusing on the simple miracle of a sprouting seed. Escaping to the garden (with a glass of wine) is practically medicinal these days.


Photo credits: All images courtesy of Alicia Carter Johnson