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Chalk it up to boredom or fear, but victory gardens are growing again

The concept of a "victory garden" dates to World War I, when food shortages in war-torn Europe put the burden of feeding millions on the United States.

Jennifer Aylward-Kasitz (center) with her kids Brennan, 9, (left) and Gloria, 11, harvest some Tuscan kale from their Coatesville backyard garden.
Jennifer Aylward-Kasitz (center) with her kids Brennan, 9, (left) and Gloria, 11, harvest some Tuscan kale from their Coatesville backyard garden.Read moreAVI STEINHARDT

“To plant a garden,” actress Audrey Hepburn once said, “is to believe in tomorrow.”

If Hepburn was right, then cooped-up Americans must be filled with faith in the future. Whether prompted by boredom, the need for a kid-friendly activity, nice spring weather, or fear of not having access to fresh produce, they’re scooping up seeds by the handful and making them grow.

Jennifer Aylward-Kasitz, 39, created a Facebook group for her Coatesville friends and neighbors to encourage them to get their hands dirty. “No experience needed,” the Chester County mom of three grade-schoolers posted on the site.

She called her project the Coatesville Victory Garden Club.

Within days, membership swelled to nearly 150. Everyone is offering encouraging tips on how and what to grow, and where to get free mulch. The posts are full of bright, colorful photos of members’ seed trays and new backyard plots.

“It’s been really lovely to see everybody helping each other,” said Aylward-Kasitz, who already had a garden but is expanding its size this year. "All I did was get it started.”

Other established Facebook garden sites, like Abington Pa Free Garden Community and Share and Chester County Ramblings Gardening Group, are also abuzz with interest from new vegetable and flower gardeners.

Call them the Virus Victory Gardeners.

The concept of Victory Gardens dates to World War I, when food shortages in war-torn Europe put the burden of feeding millions on the United States.

Back then, the National War Garden Commission was organized to encourage Americans to grow and store their own food so that more could be exported to our Allies as part of the war effort. The movement’s motto was “Sow the seeds of victory" — hence the term “victory garden.” The gardens emerged again in World War II, when commercial crops were diverted to the military overseas, according to

In peacetime, Americans have greened their thumbs in response to other threats. In the 1980s, for example, they planted seeds to avoid ingesting the pesticides used in commercially grown produce. And in the survivalist run-up to Y2K, they sowed backyard crops out of worry that a disruption in the country’s computer networks would create an American dystopia.

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“Anybody who had been involved with the gardening movement has watched the ebb and flow,” said Sally McCabe, the associate director of community education at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Big, national events that can scare people into growing their own food often wind up yielding a crop of new gardeners who stick with the movement after the crises pass, McCabe said.

“This way of life doesn’t need to end when the virus comes under control,” she noted.

The country’s current interest in gardening has been an economic boon for seed companies.

“Things have dramatically escalated in the last 45-60 days,” said Jamie Mattikow, CEO and president of W. Atlee Burpee Company, whose retail and online sales have skyrocketed in the last weeks.

The company’s analytics of online sales indicate that new customers are driving the growth. There has also been an increase in the clicks on the garden advice the company offers.

“In the last month, [online] traffic to our content has gone up 75% from the same time last year,” Mattikow said. Obviously, he notes, people come to gardening for any number of reasons, including health, exercise, pleasure, nutrition, and — studies have shown — mood elevation. He believes that some of those needs have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Gardening, he said, "is a particularly positive activity for people to focus on right now.”

Burpee isn’t the only seed company experiencing a sales increase.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company had to temporarily take down its website so employees could catch up on the two- to three-week backlog of orders, said Kathy McFarland, spokesperson for the Mansfield, Mo.-based company. (Baker Creek had plenty of seeds on hand, she said, but just needed more time to fill them.)

“We are seeing two to three times the number of orders we [usually] see this time of year,” said McFarland.

It was both the uncertainty about the length of the coronavirus-prompted shutdowns and wanting to keep a safe social distance from others that got gardener Bernard Donohue “thinking ahead.”

He decided to increase the amount of spring greens he usually grows and then give away the extras, hoping the latter would keep everyone’s trips to grocery stores to a minimum.

“I’m sure my neighbors and wife’s family will appreciate fresh organic lettuce,” said Donohue, 58, a computer analyst who lives in Mount Laurel.

For others — like commuters now working from home, or parents who no longer have to drive kids to sports — it could be that having extra time on their hands has led them to gardening.

“We are a busy society, and suddenly everyone is home with nothing to do,” said Toni Farmer, 51, a Penn grad student majoring in environmental studies, with a concentration in sustainable agriculture.

When she saw recent mentions of victory gardens on Facebook, Farmer began posting video tutorials for those who want to start their gardens from seeds.

“This feels like a national crisis,” she said, with people concerned about possible food shortages. Planting a garden “feels like a safety net."

Plus, she added, “It’s spring.”

Five things you can do to start a victory garden

1. It’s all about soil and location. Whether you start your garden in a pot or a plot, make sure your soil is fresh and fertile and that your garden will receive plenty of sunlight. A good potting soil will help with needed nutrients. If you are planting outside, you can send off a soil sample to the Penn State Extension for testing to find out if your soil will need to be amended.

2. Start small and build. Don’t try to overachieve with your first garden. Stick to a small number of plants, and watch the watering and weeds. Try vegetable starts and plant them after the traditional frost dates, usually around Mother’s Day. Some easy veggies like carrots and beans can be grown from seed when the soil is warm enough. Keep tabs on what you planted for next year.

3. Tomatoes are the gateway for many gardeners. Tomatoes are the vegetable that keeps giving, but sprouting them from seed can be difficult for a first-time gardener. Look for plant starts at your local nursery or ask on Facebook garden groups to see if anyone has extras. Make sure there is enough space between the tomatoes to give them proper ventilation and room to grow. Don’t forget to use a tomato cage or pole and gently tie the stalk as the plant grows.

4. Mind the bees. Avoid plant starts that were grown using neonicotinoids, an insecticide that is harmful to honey bees, which are needed to pollinate cucumbers and squash. Add flowers like lavender and sunflowers to attract bees to your garden, and marigolds to keep out other pests.

5. For apartment dwellers. Herb or sprout gardens are a great way to bring fresh food into your diet. Plant a small window garden with your favorite herbs like basil, cilantro, or parsley. For soilless gardens, try using organic seeds in a jar and harvest them in their sprout stage. Radish, pea, chickpea, mung beans, alfalfa, sunflower, and lentils can be good salad or sandwich toppers.