In unsettled times, people often turn to gardening, not only to provide for peace of mind, but also the sense of security that growing one's own food can nurture. A backyard garden can create a place of tranquility and calm, putting hands into earth and observing biological life going about their animal ways free of concern. Picking the literal fruits of one's labors and biting into produce that is filled with taste and vibrancy is incomparable.
During World War II, victory gardens sprang up around the country as a way to encourage the self-sufficiency of American citizens, allowing our nation to focus its resources on defeating fascism and intolerance. In Chicago, 1,500 community gardens popped up, as well as 250,000 home gardens. More than 50% of produce consumed in Chicago was homegrown. And surprisingly, 90% of victory gardeners in Chicago were completely new to gardening.
Today, the future is once again filled with uncertainty. With supply chain issues in a global economy and each trip to the grocery store potentially exposing us to illness, many Americans are turning once again to the backyard garden as a way to provide a sense of security for themselves and their families.
If you are already a gardener, you may have noticed some changes due to the pandemic. Some traditional seed sellers are temporarily not taking orders and ones that are often have limited choices or delayed shipping times. As of May 1, garden centers will be allowed to reopen as essential businesses. However, strict social distancing guidelines must be followed, and all employees and customers must wear face coverings.
Kellie Schmidt, executive director of the Illinois Green Industry Association, stated, "Many retail garden centers, greenhouses and nurseries have worked hard to modify operations since March 21 to offer call-ahead ordering with curbside pickup, delivery options, website orders, personal shopping service and other creative options to serve customers' planting and gardening needs safely."
Schmidt noted that the social distancing guidelines are intended to keep both customers and employees safe and encouraged shoppers to consider supporting local garden centers and greenhouses when buying plants in the coming weeks.
Randy Belville, owner and operator of New City Greenhouse in rural Sangamon county, has modified his business methods to comply with the governor's order and give his customers what they need. "My phone is ringing off the hook," he laughs. Belville has revamped his Facebook page to highlight his inventory of plants, and patrons are advised to call in their orders, which will be assembled and set aside until they are picked up. The long greenhouse driveway will morph into a full drive-through as the weather warms.
Belville maintains, "A safe way to socially distance is to garden in your yard." Not only does this give many of us an outlet to exercise, but studies have shown that gardening can reduce blood pressure, anxiety and stress, as well as help with mental health and depression – all of which are most welcome in a society dealing with a pandemic.
If you are new to gardening, the internet's hive mind can give you unlimited starting points. YouTube offers many how-to videos, while local gardening clubs are still meeting virtually through Facebook and other platforms. The University of Illinois Extension Office provides a wealth of information particular to our area.
If you are interested in growing your own fresh produce but do not have a sunny yard, consider a container garden. Fresh herbs, edible flowers and small tomatoes can flourish in a sunny window or patio. Another option is to rent a plot in a community garden.
Check out Grow Springfield's website (growspringfield.org), which provides a community garden directory. Not all community gardens are operating this year, but some are doing so by taking precautions with social distancing, limited numbers of volunteers and increased hygiene. Jefferson Park Community Garden and the Neighborhood Gardens in Enos Park are both renting private plots for $10, and the community garden at the Illinois State Fairgrounds is up and running this year as well.
My own advice to new gardeners, having been an organic gardener for most of my adult life, is that it's best to start small, planting vegetables and fruits you know you will enjoy eating. Though it may take a year or two of planting, experimenting and observing to become skilled at gardening, there are many easy-to-grow vegetables, fruits and herbs that will give a beginning gardener an encouraging start. Even small successes can feel like huge victories in a garden.