Victory gardens and COVID-19

May 12th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Victory what? 

While rationing does not appear to be on the horizon during this pandemic, concerns over the fragility of the American food system continue to grow. Many Americans are feeling powerless in the face of shelter-in-place orders, job loss, overwhelmed medical facilities and the suffering of neighbors and friends. With all of this uncertainty circling, other questions arise, especially around food production. Who will harvest our crops? What happens if the supermarkets can’t keep up with the demand? What can we, as individuals, do in the face of an uncertain future? 

In the wake of the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are rediscovering the tradition of victory gardens. Instead of relying on grocery stores to keep food in stock, many Americans are turning their lawns into small victory gardens to create some food security in an uncertain time. “People seem to be preparing for some serious disruptions in the food supply. I’m not alone in feeling concerned with how this may go down,” said Nate Kleinman, co-founder of the nonprofit Experimental Farm Network. These family- and community-centered gardens were popular during both of the World Wars and were an important source of both calories and nutrition for communities during times of scarcity caused by these wars. 

This isn’t without precedent; many of the war gardens of 1918 became the victory gardens of 1919 in the face of the Spanish flu. More Americans died from this deadly outbreak than were killed in the First World War. “The war-garden model was inspiring for a lot of people, because there were all these huge forces at work around the globe that were out of their control,” Kleinman said. Gardens provide a concrete way to exert a little control in an uncertain global economy. 

If sales are any indication, people are turning to the victory garden movement in droves. The Virginia-based Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has seen approximately a 300% increase in orders since March 15. Views on YouTube for videos about how to build raised beds have skyrocketed. With a faceless enemy all around, planting a garden is an act of hope that has spread across the country.

Gardening for well-being 

In a season where self-isolation may mean having to make do with the limited outdoor space, gardening offers an opportunity to cultivate the outdoors no matter how small your location. Whether you are tending a pot of basil on your windowsill, or planting spinach and lettuce in a converted kiddie pool on your back stoop, gardening offers everyone the opportunity to be in touch with nature. 

Studies have shown that time spent outdoors is good for both mental and emotional health. In fact, those who spend time in nature often recover more quickly from surgery, are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and manage stress better. In Japan, spending time in nature for health is so popular they’ve given it a name: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. 

According to Psychology Today, gardening provides several benefits to a person’s well-being. In addition to the benefits of physical exercise, gardening allows us to practice mindfulness, or being present. “When I’m out there weeding, I want to hear the birds. I don’t want to hear anything else. It’s a quiet time, and I relish it,” says Joe Lamp’l, a gardener and founder of the website Other avid gardeners echo this enjoyment of mindfulness in the garden. Another writer suggests including a space to sit and relax in the garden after you’ve accomplished your daily tasks. 

Learning to accept imperfection is another of gardening’s positive gifts. “I love making mistakes,” said Lamp’l, “because I look at them as a chance to learn something new. Through those mishaps, you can understand what happened and why, and you can be empowered to relate that learning to new things.” For gardeners new and old, there are many lessons to be learned from new seedlings striving to make their way in the world. 

What to grow 

Adrian Higgins, a writer for The Washington Post and an avid gardener for more than 30 years, considers his victory garden a “Stick It to the Virus Garden.” In a column he wrote about the concept of victory gardens, he offers several key insights for the first-time gardener who might be trying to get started in the midst of the current global crisis. 

Higgins begins by focusing on soil, sunlight and water — essentials for growing any kind of produce. Raised beds, or just mounds of soil designated for planting, are the best way to begin, he advises, as well as making sure you choose a location that provides a good six to eight hours of sunlight. Water is also key, and ensuring you have easy access through irrigation lines, rain catchment or a good old-fashioned watering can is important.

Growing seasons vary across the country, but there are generally three planting seasons: early spring (March–June), where you can plant greens like spinach, kale and chard, along with brassicas, like cabbage and broccoli, and the good old potato; summer (May–September) in which you can plant tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash; and fall (August–November), in which gardeners can plant another round of greens and garlic to over-winter. Beans can be grown throughout the summer months and can be planted every few weeks for a long harvest. 

While a garden focused on calorie density might be the new victory gardener’s desire, it’s important to add other types of plants as well. Herbs like oregano and rosemary can be used in cooking to lend flavor to your food, and flowers add beauty while attracting much needed pollinators. Fruit is an investment, as most fruits won’t yield their first year, but if you want a victory garden for years to come, they can be planted as seeds of hope for the next year.

A history of victory gardens 

The victory garden movement started in 1917 in response to the First World War. Initially called “war gardens,” this movement encouraged Americans to plant gardens in any and all available spaces in order to free up the foodstuffs produced on bigger farms so that they could be sent to our allies in Europe. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the need to feed our soldiers spurred the victory garden movement even more. 

The victory garden movement continued into 1919 when the United States was ravaged by another pandemic, the Spanish flu, which killed more citizens than the Great War that preceded it. Citizens planted gardens in their yards, empty lots, school grounds, and local parks. Even children were encouraged to join the effort through the Bureau of Education’s United States School Garden Army. 

While the passion for gardening waned in the decades between the world wars — gardening is hard work especially for first time growers with little practical experience — it was revived with the onset of World War II. Patriotic posters circulated encouraging families to plant their own victory gardens to “make your rations go further,” and to garden as a way of doing each citizen’s part to defeat Nazis. The movement was a success, and victory gardens produced 20% of America’s fresh vegetables from over 20 million gardens during the war.

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