Shit gets real.
Earthquakes. A global pandemic. Grocery store aisles stripped bare. Restaurant dining rooms, bars, and many businesses are closed. Despite our state’s misplaced reputation for emergency preparedness, harried citizens are waking up before dawn to get to the grocery at 6am in hopes of securing toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It seems all around me, most people are somewhere between pretty worried and total panic.
But not me, I’m winning. I have victory planted in my back yard; hell, it’s growing in my side and front yard as well.
The term “Victory Garden” was coined in World War One. Encouraging the entire population of the Allied countries to grow food gardens everywhere was a crucial component of the war strategy. By getting citizens to produce their own food, the bulk of agricultural production could be shipped out to feed the troops.
Through a massive American propaganda and information campaign, people responded and planted vegetables, fruit and herbs everywhere. Home gardens replaced lawns. Parks, church property and vacant lots transformed into micro farms, and apartment balconies soon hosted battalions of potted plants. The effort was so successful during both world wars, that by the end of World War Two, the output of the citizens matched the output of big ag.
Even Eleanor Roosevelt tore out a swath of White House lawn to plant a victory garden, despite pushback from the Department of Agriculture. Big Ag thought this move was taking it a bit too far, as too much encouragement for citizens to plant their own food might result in lost profits for the agricultural sector! I’m not sure whether it’s comforting or terrifying to learn that corrupt business interests were putting their profits above the well being of the general population as much in the 1940s as they do today.
Unfortunately, neighborhood resiliency fell out of fashion as the convenience craze took over in the years following WWII, and this is where we all find ourselves today. My dear reader, I cannot in good faith allow you to “survive” on stockpiled wheat flour while I’m enjoying fresh grilled beets, arugula and hard cider. Bags of rice provide little nourishment, let alone enjoyment, unless paired with an ample supply of fresh vegetables.
In addition to food, the garden can produce other resources as well. Panicked over now toilet paper? Not this guy. My property grows ample amounts of mullein, a plant with thick, wide, velvety soft leaves that makes thin and abrasive toilet paper seem like a barbaric blast to the booty. (Note: Not for flushing.)
The time to plant your garden is now! With the uncertainty of mandatory lockdowns and scarcity of resources looming over our heads, we must reclaim our neighborhood resilience and produce what we can ourselves, and then dehydrate, freeze, ferment, bottle and share the surplus.
In addition to providing resources, thrusting your hands into living soil, being outside in the sunshine and moving around while gardening are all incredibly potent boosts to your mental and physical health as well as a huge reinforcement to your immune system. Few things compromise your immune response more than stress and a sedentary lifestyle, so get off your ass and let’s plant a garden!
How to do it.
Step 1: Locate your space to grow.
Most vegetables, herbs, fruit producing trees and bushes prefer full sun, at least six or more hours of light. Have a shady back yard? Use your front or side yard. Find an abandoned lot and plant it. Pots, wooden crates, and anything that will hold a potting mix allow you to grow on balconies or other unconventional areas. Find those open spaces in your flower beds and fill them with food plants. One square foot of open soil can grow a grape vine that will eventually produce more than you could possibly eat, so be sure to share.
Step 2: Study up!
Revel in your newfound free time and study YouTube and organic gardening sites to learn all the tricks of the trade (at least until the internet crumbles; be sure to print off some of those resources!). Read gardening books, seed catalogues, and other resources. Fill that noggin with useful information.
Step 3: Acquire resources.
Order, ask a gardener, or barter for seeds. Many perennial herbs and fruit-producing plants are able to be divided or cloned from cuttings; it’s often as easy as separating out a rampant division of mint or oregano, or pruning a cane from a raspberry or grape vine and sticking it in the ground. Plants want to grow—it’s easier than you think. For warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers, which need to be started from transplants, keep your eyes on Wasatch Community Gardens Spring Plant Sale; we’re working hard to make sure that we do whatever it takes to make sure we have plants available to those who need them around Mother’s Day, even if we have to be creative in how we do it.
Gather as much compost, aged manure, leaves and other organic matter as you can. Store them and be ready.
Step 4: Prepare the soil
Remove lawn, debris, or whatever is coming between you and your soil. Incorporate composted organic matter, aged manure, or other organic amendments. Don’t have any? Don’t let that hold you back. Most soils, especially those on the east end of the valley in Salt Lake City, are ready to produce plenty of productive growth with zero amendments. To be honest, most work many gardeners do to improve their soils are for their own enjoyment, not for the necessity of growing a garden.
Step 5: Plant!
There is no better source of information than what is found on the back of a seed packet. Read it and do what it says! Plant spacing, planting season, and seed depth are all critical to the success of your garden.
Armed with the information you gathered in Step 2, you can do it, trust me. Plants simply want to grow, you are merely the facilitator. Add water and time, and get ready for the food to roll in. As Ron Finley, LA’s “gangster gardener” says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
For the unprepared, quarantine, lockdown, and rationing may be terrifying. For those of us who planted and prepared, it’s a time for relaxation, meditation, and to catch up on all that reading. Stay safe, stay healthy, and may you look back on this time with fond memories of when society finally just slowed the f*ck down.
James is a full time farmer, permaculture weirdo, and president of the OchO Society, a nonprofit dedicated to ecological education and adventure.