Like many gardeners, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and people started shopping for food in bulk, I wondered whether I should grow a victory garden. Victory gardens were large kitchen gardens homeowners kept during World Wars I and II as a way of ensuring food for themselves and others. Since a lot of rural people left the country to fight in the wars, the agriculture industry became strained. So the government started a campaign to transform every backyard and public park into land for food cultivation. It was a citizen’s patriotic duty.
The campaign worked. Many homeowners, including my in-laws’ families, grew their own food in their backyards. If they had extra harvest, they passed it on to those distributing it to soldiers and others in need.
A Pandemic Straining the Food Supply
Now, of course, we’re at war with a disease. A disease that’s sickened some of our food supply workers. Though America produces much more than enough food for our markets, we may suffer a break in that production if more workers become sick. The logical conclusion is to grow your own food. It’s spring and summer’s coming. In a time of a pandemic, it’s the perfect opportunity to install that kitchen garden you’ve thought about but never got around to before.
What Are the Costs of a Victory Garden?
For a kitchen garden, you of course need a growing space. This could be anything from a large chunk of your yard to a pot on your balcony. If you were really into it, you could grow some food indoors. But the question is is setting it all up, in terms of buying the seeds, plants, and soil and then either buying or building raised planters, worth the time and money?
It depends on your perspective. One tomato plant that costs five dollars can produce 20 pounds of tomatoes over the season. You won’t have to buy tomatoes for probably three months. How much do you spend on tomatoes otherwise? Let’s say, for simplicity sake, five dollars every week. That’s sixty dollars in total that you’d save on one vegetable. Not an enormous amount, especially since you’d have to buy soil for the plant and perhaps a container, and factor in supplemental water. And that all assumes you won’t have to treat pests.
Now, take those figures and multiply them by 100 as that’s how many plants one couple would probably need to sustain themselves. If loosely tallied, you find that you spend a small amount and save a large amount. That’s great! And the upshot is you have organic food that tastes much sweeter and fresher than store-brought vegetables, which are bred to look nice but often taste bland.
Time Well Spent?
Another issue is the time and effort growing a kitchen garden entails. It’s not just about plopping a plant in soil and walking away, right? First, if you plan the stages properly, you will ideally grow a first-round crop of lettuce and then two weeks later, another crop so that as one head matures, another is growing for later. And so on. It’s called succession planting and it takes planning.
Also, kitchen gardens require watering, fertilizing, tying up vines, general maintenance, and most importantly, harvesting. You have to be ready to preserve all of the food you’ve just grown when the fruit and vegetables ripen. That includes picking, properly storing, blanching and freezing, and sometimes canning. My husband’s family did this when he was growing up and the work can be a constant chore.
How Secure Is the Food Supply Chain?
As I mentioned, the food supply chain only stays stable if we have healthy workers to do the farming for us. Because of the new restrictive immigration laws, farm managers are low on manual laborers, those who pick and process the fruits and vegetables. Also, some laborers have become ill with Covid-19. This in turn has caused some processing plants to shut down.
California Had Foresight, the Midwest Not So Much
So far, we’re lucky that California’s governor immediately announced a stay-at-home order early in the pandemic. Not only did this save lives, the number one priority, but it enabled most agriculture workers to stay on the job. Because they’re on the job, we’re still getting our tomatoes and most all other fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. California supplies over 80 percent of those to the United States. People may knock California’s politics, but the agriculture workers of California feed us everyday.
Unlike California, governors in the plains and midwest states did not issue stay-at-home orders early. The biggest meat-packing plants are in these states. Now, we’re learning workers are being diagnosed with Covid-19 by the hundreds. Major plants are shutting down and a meat shortage is coming. Perhaps, it’s not such a bad thing since as we could all stand to eat less red meat and pork.
What I Finally Decided
I had all of these issues and arguments swirling in my mind these last few weeks. Should I throw myself into a huge kitchen garden or not? I certainly have the space, and by the grace of God, so far, we have the money. But that maintenance and work I mentioned above held me back. What also held me back was the reality that I have three children, a five-person family. I’d have to grow 700-800 plants in about 1000 square feet of space. That’s a lot of everything. Plus, in summer and fall, the garden would be at least a sizable part-time job.
So I compromised. I’m setting aside about 300 square feet of space and growing about 200 plants (not including every last berry and fig). So I’m growing about a third of our fresh vegetables and fruits. To create 1000 square feet of space, I’d need to dig out a huge area of lawn and then fence it off and build several raised beds and I don’t think I have the energy this year. It’s enough just to stay sane during the pandemic. Perhaps, later in the summer I’ll regret it, I don’t know. But right now, I’m counting on the wonderful people of California’s agriculture system to keep us fed. I wish them good health for their own lives, and afterward, for our well being too.