by Mary Killen Schaefer, Academy of Lifelong Learning (ALL) board member, member Springfield Civic Garden Club
With grocery stores and farmers’ markets providing easy access to fresh produce, the popularity of traditional vegetable gardens has declined. But the recent evolution of the coronavirus, COVID-19, should have us all reviewing our own food sources and evaluating our plans for gardening this year. Gardening might give us the hope we need amid the coronavirus pandemic, keep us occupied at home, and help us prepare for any shortages in the future.
Perhaps we’ve taken for granted the luxury of driving to the nearest grocery store to find it fully stocked with food on the shelves. In just a short amount of time, however, as the virus and warnings have spread, we’re increasingly faced with food shortages. Many of us have had to use our intrinsic creativity to make meals with what we could find in the pantry and grocery store. If it wasn’t a shortage of bread, meat or fresh vegetables, sometimes canned goods were in short supply.
All I could think about when I stared at empty shelves at the grocery store during that first crisis weekend was my grandparents’ garden.They lived through the Great
Depression and two world wars, when it was commonplace for homeowners to plant large gardens to help feed their own families.My grandparents, for as long as they were able, had a garden full of many kinds of vegetables – potatoes, beets, turnips, onions and carrots (all of which could be stored for months in the cold cellar), rhubarb, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, corn and beans. They ate from the garden daily for as long as they could. Any vegetables that weren’t consumed immediately were prepared for canning or simply given away to neighbors or those less fortunate.
When I was a kid, that garden seemed enormous (the biggest I’d ever seen), with evenly divided rows of vegetables, mostly started from seed. There was a grape arbor too, along with fruit trees.
During World Wars I and II, people were called upon to plant “victory gardens.” These gardens were planted in backyards, on public land and rooftops, just about anywhere, both to encourage people to supplement their regular food sources (many of which were rationed) and to promote morale. By the end of World War II, 40 percent of the country’s produce came from victory gardens.
This spring, with the straining of food sources due to COVID-19, we may see home gardening return to popularity. It’s a way to get out of the house (well, not too far out of the house) and dig in the dirt. Gardening is also a great way to get some healthy exercise and fresh air.
No matter how you do it – surface planting, raised planters or container gardening – you have the opportunity to grow whatever vegetables you like. Additionally, by contributing to your own food supply, you can help lower your grocery bill.
Seed packets can be easily ordered online today through a variety of sources or purchased inexpensively at nearby stores, along with plant starts. Gardening is also a great way to involve your family members, young and old, in sowing and reaping the benefits of growing your own food.
According to the University of Illinois Extension website, “Vegetables from the home garden are fresher, may have better nutrient values, and are often less costly than those sold in stores.”
For some useful tips on planting your spring garden, go to the University of Illinois Extension website. You can find “Ten Steps to a Successful Garden” at: https://web.extension.illinois.edu/vegguide/tensteps.cfm.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac provides details on the right time for planting your vegetable garden. Its online calendar has information, by state and town, on the best dates for planting. It also offers other tips on preparing your garden.
The calendar is here: www.almanac.com/gardening/planting-calendar.
And this article covers the basics of backyard gardening during our coronavirus crisis: www.almanac.com/gardening/grow-victory-garden-coronavirus.
In the space you’ve dedicated for your garden, or perhaps somewhere else in your yard, you can also select an area for pollinator plants, like sunflowers, cosmos, cone-flowers, milkweed or zinnias. They not only add color but encourage pollination by the bees and butterflies. (Remember, you may need to add some sort of wire fencing to keep away those nibbling bunnies.)
You can make your garden visually fun by adding painted rocks, a garden flag, water fountain or ornamental sculptures.
As I write this, we are in the midst of our “shelter-in-place” requirement and face several more weeks of the same thing.
But temperatures are hitting the 60-degree mark, the daffodils are blooming, tulips are soon to follow, and Illinois wildflowers will once again dot the prairies, parks, highways and bike trails. We are all being beckoned to spend time outdoors and witness our landscape change from a dull brown to the vibrant colors of spring. As winter fades, so too, we hope, will the coronavirus.
So, get outside with nature and appreciate the positive, therapeutic benefits gardening can deliver.