(Part I of a three-part series on Growing Your Own Food)
By Debbie Brown, PC EMG
The practice of growing your own food is as ancient as mankind. Our ancestors were a hardy bunch of farmers who worked long hours to provide food for their families. Necessity called for growing, harvesting, and preserving crops. In the early 1900s markets were introduced and gradually many people drifted away from home gardening in favor of convenience.
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called on all Americans to plant vegetable gardens to ward off the possible threat of food shortages. Thousands took up the challenge as a civic and patriotic duty. Originally called War or Liberty Gardens, the term Victory Gardens took root.
In World War II, Victory Gardens helped supplement rationed goods like sugar, meat, cooking oil and canned foods. Although many people had never harvested crops before, nearly 20 million Americans answered the call to start a garden. Backyards, empty lots, and even city rooftops sprouted lush produce.
Traditional victory gardens included foods high in nutrition, such as beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, squash and Swiss chard.
Once again, many non-farmers in our country have returned to their roots to begin backyard gardening. While rising grocery costs, labor shortages and empty shelves don’t compare to those in wartime, growing vegetables, fruits and herbs is a positive and rewarding activity. In a world where there is so much out of our control, we can develop a space in our little corner that will flourish and provide nourishment for our bodies and souls. Self-sufficiency is always a morale boost.
Some are calling the recent surge in gardening, the new Victory Gardens, a name that aptly fits the triumphant feeling growing something can give. Planting is a hopeful act that provides a break from the news of the day. Doesn’t that sound like a phenomenal idea?
Starting your own Victory Garden begins with asking yourself practical questions. What should I grow? How much time do I have for gardening? Do I have physical limitations? How much space do I have?
Almost anyone can have a garden of some sort. Options abound from tucking a few vegetable plants in the flower bed to growing herbs on the windowsill or salad greens in a deck box. Or perhaps large planters of tomatoes or a simple raised bed filled with your favorites. All of these are doable and only require six hours of sunlight, nutritious soil, a nearby water source and a willing gardener to tend the plants as needed.
If you are new to gardening, it’s wise to resist the urge to overplant. It’s much better to be proud of your small garden than to be overwhelmed with a large one. Focus on growing food that your family likes to eat. There will be great value in planting the items you already buy regularly at the market. Gardens do not have to be big to be beneficial.
Growing food with our own two hands is one of the healthiest things we can do. Fruits and vegetables are at their optimum nutritional value the moment they are picked from the vine. The produce in most markets have lost much of that value in the process of being harvested prematurely and then shipped from various states and countries. A diet of garden-to-table food grown in mineral rich soil nourishes our bodies and minds.
Homegrown food is generally much safer than store bought. Growing without using harmful chemicals is an important practice for the home gardener. Carefully handling our harvest avoids the possible contamination sometimes discovered in packaged foods. Have you noticed the increasing number of recalls in salad greens?
The physical and mental activity of gardening is another wonderful benefit of growing our food. Exercise in the fresh outdoors is invigorating and uplifting. Getting the whole family involved can reap rewards of better health and togetherness. It’s an educational experience with the added benefit of discovering how delicious fresh off the vine food really is.
There is immeasurable satisfaction in growing your own food. Planting a seed, watching it sprout and grow, preparing a meal from the fruits of your labor, are activities that simply make you feel good. As Lewis Grizzard said, “It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
The cost of growing your own food will depend on the choices you make in planting and the resources available to you. Salad greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, squash and broccoli are some of the more cost-effective vegetables to grow. A few servings of these from the store can cost nearly the same as a whole season from the home garden. Planning meals around your bounty and less trips to the store will stretch your budget even further.
Sticking to the basics rather than purchasing all the bells and whistles in the garden world will also save you money. Using containers and tools you have on hand, starting seeds instead of purchasing seedlings and sharing seeds with friends are ways to keep initial costs down. Composting and acquiring manure from community farms are great options to build your garden soil with little expense.
Perhaps you have considered growing your own food this spring. Winter is an ideal time to gather information. Check out gardening books at the local library and search the internet for ideas. Virginia Cooperative Extension offers several publications on growing vegetables and fruits at www.pubs.ex.vt.edu. Seek out advice from friends and neighbors who garden. Seed catalogs often contain helpful gardening information and can be ordered online for free. Browsing through the lovely photos of produce and flowers is sure to inspire as well.
The PCMG’s would like to be a helpful resource on your gardening journey. This year our articles in The Enterprise, WHEO programs, and workshops will focus on the topics of Growing and Harvesting Food. We hope this will be an encouragement for many of you to dig in and grow something delicious!
Information on future PCMG events will be found in The Enterprise, on WHEO the fourth Tuesday morning of each month and on the Patrick County Master Gardener’s Facebook page. Watch for upcoming details of the Spring Gardening Symposium to be held on March 12. Tune in to WHEO at 92.7 on January 25 at 8:30 a.m. to listen to the Master Gardener’s first installment of the Growing Your Own Food Series. Topics to be discussed will include Selecting Your Seeds.