Victory Garden poster by Maginel Wright Barney, 1919. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
April 9, 2020
Stuck at home like the rest of the country and most of the world? Why not conquer the quarantine with a Victory Garden? During WWI and WWII, residents of both the U.S. and Europe were encouraged to grow their own food - let’s revive the tradition!
Victory Garden poster, 1945. Courtesy of University of North Texas.
My father grew up in Scotland during WWII and his mother always had a Victory Garden just outside their kitchen back door. She would create delicious pots of hot, home-grown vegetable soup with fresh baked bread nearly every day, keeping her family warm and healthy at a time when food was scarce.
Then as now, gardening is a universal activity. Whether your yard is half an acre or you only have a tiny space on an apartment balcony, growing your own food can be fun, good for the environment and a skill that’s handy to have, especially in uncertain times.
Victory Garden poster, 1943. Courtesy of University of North Texas.
My friend and former host of PBS’s The Victory Garden which ran from 1975-2015, Michael Weishan, recently restored a 1942 film about how Americans made their own Victory Gardens, but the ideas are just as relevant today.
As Weishan notes on his YouTube page, “It's hard to believe now, but people like the Holders in this film grew almost half the country's produce by the end of WWII, right in their own backyards.”
Though most of us still have access to safe food sources, Weishan said you will reap ample rewards by growing at least a few fresh veggies for your own table.
“Nothing tastes better than produce from your own garden!”
Watch Weishan’s restored film here along with his own on-screen commentary.
Creating a Victory Garden is also a wonderful activity to share with your children. Being outdoors with our hands in the dirt immerses us in nature, gets everyone moving and away from the TV and video screens plus floods us with sunlight and Vitamin D which is thought to help strengthen our immunity. According to Mother Nature Network, gardening can “tune up your immune system, ward off depression and even make you smarter.” Research shows that beneficial bacteria in the garden can even help us stay healthier.
GSDFW reporter Andrea Ridout in her garden, where she uses straw as mulch.
My mother, Fran McEwan, is about to turn 90 years old and spent her youth on a farm in Ohio. She credits much of her longevity to a life of gardening and has never forgotten the lessons learned from her father, a landscape designer, and mother, a garden cook and baker.
Mom’s advice for budding gardeners: “Grow the vegetables and fruits that you and your family enjoy eating. Plant your favorite tomatoes, your son or daughter’s perfect carrots, your spouse’s ideal sweet potatoes.”
My son, Sully, is fairly new to gardening but he has already learned some valuable lessons. He has been putting in his own Victory Garden in Oak Cliff, making raised beds out of some discarded lumber that a neighbor threw out.
Dotty Woodson, formerly of Texas A&M AgriLife and now retired and running her own orchid greenhouse, D and B Orchids in Fort Worth, sees working in the garden as more than just a way to produce food. It can also be a cure for the quarantine blues.
“Gardening is a physical as well as a mental exercise,” said Woodson. “I’d rather be out in the garden than anywhere else.
“Just step outside and make some observations,” Woodson continued. “Things are germinating today that weren’t there just yesterday. Open your eyes to the world around you. When you garden, you tend to look at things a little bit differently.”
A cat chills at Weston Gardens in Fort Worth. Photo by Candy Halliburton.
Since most garden centers, hardware stores and home centers are considered essential businesses, plants, seeds and other supplies are plentiful. Woodson encourages shopping in local stores with knowledgeable staffers who understand area weather and conditions.
“Independent garden centers are a great source of information. They have people there who can help you with your specific needs,” Woodson says.
See which garden centers we found open under the current stay-at-home orders.
GARDENING TIP: “Mulch is like the icing on the cake. It looks really good but also keeps the soil moist.” - Dotty Woodson
Edible plants are divided roughly into those that grow in the winter (or cooler weather) and those that grow in the summer. Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, collards, cabbage, and even broccoli are cool-loving plants.
Jeff Raska, a Texas A&M AgriLife horticulturalist, cautions that it is too late this season to grow these chilly weather varieties, so stick to summer-loving plants in your Victory Garden such as beans, peas and cucumbers.
Tomato seeds should be started in early spring. They need the warmth of the sun to get started but they can stop producing when temperatures rise in the hottest part of the summer.
“If you’re seed starting with indoor trays, now would be a good time to plant okra, melons and possibly eggplant,” said Raska
GARDENING TIP: “When seed starting, it’s tempting to use old soil, but you will have better luck using fresh new soil if you have it. Water the seedlings, but keeping them overly damp can lead to mold and rot.” - Sully Ridout, writer’s son.
Your kitchen window can also be a good place to start new plants and it can be as simple as growing roots (slips) from a sweet potato which is a great learning activity for kids, young and old.
“Sweet potatoes can be started in the windowsill now so that your slips can be ready to go into the ground in late May,” said Raska “You can also grow tomatoes and other spring vegetables but buy larger transplants rather than seeds and get them into the ground as quickly as you can.”
Agrilife maintains an online planting calendar to help with timing. You can also find out how to turn one sweet potato into 100. Now, that’s a real victory!
Raska recommends choosing tomato plant varieties and other transplants at your garden center with short days to maturity so that you beat the summer heat. One of his favorite tomatoes is Early Girls, a hybrid that will produce in about 49-50 days. Jeff notes that hybrids are not to be confused with GMOs. Farmers and home gardeners were hybridizing to create certain characteristics many generations ago.
“Traditional plants won’t produce as much as hybrids because hybrids have built-in disease protection,” said Raska.
A big pot can hold a several herb plants. Photo by Julie Thibodeaux.
If you don’t have a yard in which to grow your Victory Garden, don’t despair. Small spaces can yield enough food to make a real dent in your grocery bill and provide a break from being shut indoors. My friend, Barbara Pleasant, author of multiple books on growing your own food including one of my favorites, Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No Fail Plans For Small Organic Gardens, says that you don’t need a lot of space to have a garden. Certain plants can grow just as well in pots as they do in the ground, even in Texas.
“Tomatoes and peppers that bear small fruits like cherry tomatoes or banana peppers are more resilient in hot weather and tend to produce better than varieties that bear big fruits,” Pleasant said. “They are also the best choice for containers.”
Planted GroBox. Courtesy of Restorative Farms.
Pleasant notes that you may have to be a bit more attentive if your plants are in pots.
“Containers warm up and dry out much faster than deeply dug beds, so they require constant watering. Large containers hold more water than smaller ones, and you always have the option of grouping potted plants together in a plastic wading pool to make them easier to water.”
Pleasant admits that she looks forward to the end of the quarantine.
“I miss getting together with my gardening group once a month to share plants, tips and food while touring each other’s yards. Those happy days can’t return soon enough.”
Near my own home, neighbors are managing to trade gardening stories, even as we keep a safe distance from each other. Karen Conquist and I chatted over the alley a few days ago. Her Victory Garden is a collection of containers of all shapes and sizes, loaded with homemade compost and plants including tomatoes (which she started from seeds back in January), lettuce that has grown all spring, and beans that are just beginning to put out. Karen is quick to note that she has had many successes and just as many failures.
GARDENING TIP: “Don’t give up. Even if your first garden doesn’t produce as much as you would like.” - Karen Conquist, writer’s neighbor.
She admits that it takes many seasons to become truly proficient but the best time to start is today.
Garlic harvest. Photo by Julie Thibodeaux.
I’ll finish up with some thoughts from an elderly neighbor named Mary with whom I had many visits admiring her incredible roses, prolific vegetable garden and fat and fluffy chickens (who were her spoiled babies). Mary passed away a few years ago, but not before sharing her secret recipe with me for growing the best tomatoes in town.
“Simply mix equal parts of Epsom salts, cornmeal and cottonseed meal and put the mix in the hole before you plant your seeds or transplants,” she whispered one day with great reverence as though she was handing me the keys to the gardening kingdom. Thanks, Mary. I think I’ll give that a try in my own Victory Garden!
Have a gardening tip? We’d love to hear it. Please email it to us and we will post it on the Green Source DFW Facebook page.
Stay up to date on everything green in North Texas, including the latest news and events! Sign up for the weekly Green Source DFW Newsletter! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Also check out our new podcast The Texas Green Report, available on your favorite podcast app.