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A table full of lettuce seedlings at Walker Farm in Dummerston.

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Getting back to the garden

Plenty of support is out there for people who want to grow some of their food

The University of Vermont Extension’s Master Gardener program has set up a webpage for gardeners to seek information and offer advice to other gardeners during the current COVID-19 crisis at www.uvm.edu/extension/mastergardener/gardening-during-covid-19. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) also has information on how to create what they call “resilience gardens” at nofavt.org/blog/create-resilience-garden. High Mowing Seeds, a Vermont-based organic seed company, has a webpage full of information for the first time gardener at www.highmowingseeds.com/blog/gardening-tips-for-first-time-growers. And Edible Brattleboro has gardening help, plus recipes for what to do with your harvest at ediblebrattleboro.org.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis back in early March, many were shocked to see the lines of people trying to get into supermarkets and the empty shelves that greeted them.

The panic buying has since subsided, and the supply chain has more or less recalibrated itself, but those scenes convinced many Vermonters to start thinking about growing their own food.

For those who have never tried to start a garden, or are a little rusty in their gardening skills, there are plenty of resources to turn to, starting with the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener program.

Master Gardeners are volunteers who have taken courses with UVM Extension instructors in plant and soil science, pest control and plant-disease management, and other backyard agricultural skills. Once they finish their coursework, they partner with local community groups to pass on their knowledge and help people start and maintain healthy gardens.

However, COVID-19 has brought an urgency to the need for food security. According to the Vermont Foodbank, more than 70,000 Vermonters were using federal food benefits like 3SquaresVT before the pandemic, and that number has increased.

Likewise, demands on local food shelves has also increased since March. The Foodbank estimates one in three Vermonters suffers from food insecurity.

In response, UVM Extension’s Master Gardeners launched the Vermont Victory Garden project, which is designed to help people who are experiencing food insecurity grow some of their own food and learn the skills do it successfully.

Gordon Clark, a Master Gardener from the Burlington area, helped start the project, named for the massive effort during World War II to get American families to grow more of their own vegetables.

By 1943, Clark said, families in the U.S. were growing food in 20 million victory gardens, which produced more than a third of the fruits and vegetables that Americans consumed that year.

“The federal government did a really great job promoting the victory garden idea and giving people the information they needed to do it well,” Clark said. “But once the war ended, the government stopped pushing the idea, and most of those gardens disappeared.”

Interest in starting backyard gardens has waxed and waned through the years, but it has definitely intensified with the COVID-19 crisis, Clark said.

“I did a couple of Zoom presentations last week, and I had over 25 participants at each one,” Clark said. “I saw panic buying of seeds earlier this spring, and the Master Gardener helpline is getting flooded with calls.”

“But we’ve also seen the number of community groups expand and people have been offering land for community gardens,” he added. “So, yes, there’s a lot of interest this year.”

Keeping it simple

Being interested in growing your own food is one thing. Actually doing so is another.

When it comes to growing vegetables, Clark said that people should “be connected and be collective. Don’t try to grow everything yourself. Find other people and share the land and expertise.”

Clark said that in Vermont, a lot of people are willing to help.

“I’ve been involved with the Master Gardeners for a lot of years, and I am constantly amazed at the wealth of gardening knowledge and experience here,” he said.

But keeping things simple is the key. Clark said everyone wants to grow tomatoes, but these mercurial plants are susceptible to a wide range of blights, diseases, and pests.

Instead, he said, gardeners should focus on vegetables that are high in nutrients, not susceptible to disease, are relatively easy to grow, and will keep easily through the winter months. Root vegetables — such as potatoes, winter squash, and sweet potatoes — fit the bill here.

Greens such as lettuce, broccoli, spinach, and kale are good choices, too, Clark said, along with peas and green beans.

“The key is getting the maximum amount of food in the minimum space,” he said.

Good plants need good soil

Marilyn Chiarello, a former elementary school teacher and vegan chef, is one of the founders of Edible Brattleboro, a local initiative to get more people to grow backyard and community gardens.

For the past three summers, the organization has run community gardens at the Brattleboro Food Co-op and Turning Point of Windham County on a “take what you need” basis. Some of that giving has been paid forward with donations of seeds and plants, materials for raised beds, and copious amounts of volunteer time to maintain the gardens.

Chiarello says that a good garden starts with good soil.

“The most important thing when building a house is a solid foundation,” she told The Commons. “The same goes for a garden. It is critical to build healthy soil to support life above the ground.”

Edible Brattleboro is a supporter of using a no-dig method method that builds healthy soil over existing turf — or anywhere, for that matter. Some refer to this model as “sheet mulching” or the “lasagne method.”

“The benefits of no-dig is that it doesn’t disturb the soil structure and builds the organic matter and supports microbial life in the soil,” said Chiarello. “We will be utilizing this method at several sites in the next few weeks in hands-on workshops.”

Mulching with organic matter is good idea, too, she said, for it cuts down on weeds and allows the soil to retain more water.

Chiarello said maintaining a diverse garden also helps the soil. Planting a variety of crops and mixing annuals and perennials helps make a garden more resilient to disease and pests.

Edible Brattleboro is helping individuals start a garden through its “Adopt-a-Garden” program.

Chiarello said this program “is for people who are willing to install a ‘help-yourself’ garden accessible to the public for harvesting,” and the Adopt-a-Garden program “allows gardeners to have support while creating a bed.”

Feeding the soul as well as the body

Clark says the main thing for new gardeners to remember is not to get discouraged, for just being outside digging around in the dirt is “the smartest, healthiest thing you can do for yourself.”

He said that sunlight and fresh air are good for both one’s mental, as well as physical, health.

“I always tell people that the hours I spend in the garden are the best hours of my week,” Clark said.

He said he also hopes that if the Victory Garden program — and similar initiatives around the country — inspire enough people to start growing their own food, it might spark a trend after the pandemic that sees agriculture in the United States move away from industrial scale and back toward smaller farms.

And, for those who might fear catching the virus, Clark said that “being outdoors in a garden is probably the safest place you can be.”

“We can offer help from putting seeds in the ground to the harvest,” he added.

“Gardening isn’t brain surgery, but there’s a lot of tricks of the trade to learn,” Clark said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #564 (Wednesday, June 3, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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