A couple of months ago, in the weeks just before the shit hit the fan, my wife and I sat down to plan for the coming Covid-19 pandemic. We’re both fortunate and unfortunate enough to live in Charleston, South Carolina, which sits smack in the middle of the crosswalk spanning Hurricane Alley so disaster planning is routine. We have evacuated our home four times in the past five years (and the one year we didn’t evacuate, we wished we had). I’m no doomsday prepper, but as a reporter who has covered wildfires, mudslides and lived through many big-ass storms, I’ve witnessed privation and Mother Nature’s cruelty.
But hurricanes come and go in a way that viruses and economic depressions do not. It was clear to my wife and me as Covid-19 spread that a trip to Costco and some storm shutters weren’t going to get it done from a practical or psychological perspective — preparedness is never as simple as stockpiling. So we decided to grow a “Coronavirus Victory Garden” with the help of our increasingly dirty kids.
The Victory Garden has a storied place in America’s mythology of self-sustainability and rugged individualism. The idea was popularized during World War I, when European farms became trench-lined combat zones and farmers were drafted into military service. Untouched by combat, Americans were called on to grow “War Gardens” to feed not only themselves, but their starving allies across the Atlantic. In 1917, Charles Pack, an American timber baron was tapped to organize the National War Garden Commission. His charge was essentially to return America to its agrarian roots by putting backyards, playgrounds, rooftops, city parks and vacant lots into service growing every kind of staple food. Civic organizations and chambers of commerce organized gardening seminars and clubs. The Federal Bureau of Education enlisted schoolkids to form the U.S. School Garden Army and become “soldiers of the soil.” By 1918, over 5 million gardens were planted, growing one and a half million quarts of canned fruits and veggies.
There are precious few statues memorializing this effort — just the lovingly squared-off plots in the vegetable gardens still maintained in the shadow of Boston’s Fenway Park — but the drive was considered a national triumph. So much so that re-badged “Victory Gardens” came into vogue again during the food rationing of WWII. There was a Victory Garden on the White House Lawn and in the pages of DC Comics, where Superman, Batman and Robin all harvested crops. In the Warner Brothers cartoon Buckaroo Bugs, the wily rabbit became an outlaw after heisting carrots from a giant Victory Garden atop Jack’s beanstalk. One of hundreds of propaganda posters showed bombs of veggies falling on a Nazi Swastika with the headline “You Can Make This Kind of Ammunition.”
Halfway through the war, Victory Gardens were producing 40 percent of all the food consumed in the U.S.
Then the soldier came home and the GI Bill planted the seeds of the suburbs and America entered what agronomists call “The Golden Age of Pesticides” as lawns became a fetish object and consumerized Americans became reliant on grocery stores. This proved efficient, but our reliance on convenience was always a Faustian bargain.
“After the war it was more convenient to go to this building called a Supermarket, or where I came from in the hills of North Carolina, a general store,” laughed Billy Styles, the Carolina guru of vegetable gardens, when I called him recently. “A huge portion of the population lost the need to garden. But I try to tell everybody, everybody needs to know how to grow. Because if you don’t, you will always be dependent on someone else. You take away the foundation of life when you take away the ability to grow food.”
Billy runs a North Carolina gardening center called People’s Choice Organics. He’s is among the most renowned organic farmers in the south — and a prophet to hemp farmers and CBD producers. He is also a devotee of the Victory Garden. He’s been growing one for 62 of his 65 years.
“People always have a money savings account, or at least they’re trying to save,” he said. “Well, you also need a food savings account. You can put cherry tomato plants in a five-gallon bucket on the 20th floor of your apartment. You can grow squash and buckets of potatoes. And what if you can’t buy toilet paper no matter how much money you have? Well, I grew a plant last year, called Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). They call it ‘Cowboy Toilet Paper’ because it’s what cowboys used when they had to make a stop on the prairie.”
Billy makes these things sound easy, but they’re not. Prior to our current foray into vegetable gardening, my wife and I had only marginal success growing edibles. We had planted squash, watermelons, and tomatoes in our side yard only to see the squash eaten up with worms, the watermelon vines diseased, and the tomatoes consumed by hoards of enthusiastic stinkbugs and fiddler crabs – unexpected marauders from our neighboring salt marsh.
We hadn’t taken the time to get it right. But with my wife’s vacation rental business at low ebb, the soil felt like a proper place to reinvest our energy. Also, we were jealous of our neighbor.
Our neighbor, who I’ll refer to here as Luke Hamilton because that’s his name, has been growing substantial gardens for a few years. Luke is a teacher and the proud owner of a badass roto-tiller. He handles weed incursions by covering his tilled and organically composted soil with sheets of cardboard from old boxes (after yanking off all tape and labels). Underneath the cardboard, he lays out inexpensive drip hoses from Lowe’s. He then covers that with a layer of straw and mulch and cuts six-inch-wide X’s in the cardboard at 2-3 foot intervals so the plants have room to grow. Peeling the ‘x’s’ back and laying down his seedlings, Luke creates a nursery where his plants can take root and thrive. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at and pillaging Luke’s yard. This year, there were already heads of lettuce, young okra, peppers and impressive tomato plants, including a hardy Appalachian variety called a Cherokee Purple. Years back, Luke had also gotten some tough banana plants from an ex-girlfriend’s mom who actually grew delicious bananas in the mountains of Tennessee. Keeping them alive, he said, was easy. “She’d just cut them off, and pull ‘em out of the ground in the fall and put them in a box in her basement,” Luke said. “No soil, nothing. Come spring, she’d pull ‘em out and replant ‘em and she’d have fruit every year.”
I was green with envy.
“When I did this cardboard last year for the first time, I didn’t have to weed for six months,” he told me. “I always knew organic ingredients were the key, but for me, the key was also just time I had to spend pulling weeds.”
Billy is skeptical of the cardboard approach because of the solvents and glues that may leech into the soil. And he said definitely don’t use sheets of plastic — those can both leach and off-gas nasty chemicals. The long and short on this, having done more than a little research, is that cardboard is a reasonable compromise for those of us who can’t devote too many man-hours to weeding. But, at the same time of course, maybe that’s what kids are for.
Cardboard or not, Styles told me that my family’s garden wouldn’t thrive unless it received proper care. How are the leaves looking? Are there tiny white mites on our tomato leaves? Are our pepper plants supported enough or do we need to make bamboo teepee stands for them? Styles was emphatic in suggesting that we invest in an inexpensive moisture and pH meter and that we always water in the morning to prevent the water from sitting on the plants too long and inducing afflictions like powdered mildew, grease spots, and leaf spots.
In the summer heat of the day water drops can actually become a magnifying glass and scorch your leaves.
Inspired and moderately chastened, we invested in seeds: tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and maybe some cantaloupe and strawberries. To hedge our bets and get food faster, we added small containers of already sprouted bell peppers, thornless blackberry vines, Purple Cherokee, cherry and Black Prince tomatoes – a Siberian heirloom variety reputed to do well in early season cool weather. We bought several bags of cow and chicken manure and mushroom compost and then tilled those into our sandy soil. I plowed a pair of wide rows in our small backyard with Luke’s tiller. To keep crabs off our tomatoes, we decided to fill big, 20 and 24-inch diameter planters on our small, upstairs back deck with the same soil and plant our tomato seedlings there. On our windowsill, the kids and I filled a series of small bowls with that same soil along with an ice cube tray, and tilled in a couple of seeds into each. My ten-year-old son, Fritz was charged with labeling and helping ensure they were watered daily. In the garden, we would follow Luke’s cardboard approach. Till, mix compost with the soil, cover the cardboard with mulch, and plant.
Our results so far: been mixed but encouraging. Our planter-bound Black Prince and cherry tomatoes seedlings have grown like crazy, with young fruit and flowers after just over a month. The Purple Cherokees, on the other hand, are still tiny. Down in the actual garden, they’re doing only slightly better. But our Roma Tomatoes, squash, pepper and eggplants are filling out, even though the eggplants have tiny holes in the leaves, which Styles said are flea beetles. For that, he recommends a product called Organocide or an organic plant soap.
Here’s the thing. We now have better than 20 veggie plants growing out back. By helping with watering, weeding (there are already a few) and by watching those plants mature, our son and daughter (and their parents) are not only learning how food actually works, we’re creating a welcome diversion from the omnipresent crush of Covid-19. The food we harvest from our Victory Garden will be commensurate with the love we put into it. And if we even only manage to grow half of what we’re hoping, we’ll still provide a solid chunk of the family’s vegetable needs into the early fall — at which point we’ll plant a clutch of cool weather greens and lettuce. We can’t replace all our food with the garden, but we can make a dent. And hopefully, as we get better at this, an even bigger dent. For us, it’s a little green shoot of hope and stability, in a mad, mad world.
The Billy Styles Guide to Victory Gardens
- According to Billy Styles, May 10 is the best time to get plants in the ground across much of the south. Planting days, of course, vary across the country. The best way to find out when you should plant is through a local agricultural extension agency.
- Consider the soil before going seed wild. Not only does it need plenty of organic matter like manure and compost, soil needs insects, worms, sunlight, and airflow.“If I’m an ostrich and can look under the ground, I’d want it to look like Swiss cheese,” Billy says. “A living, breathing soil that can get oxygen, water, and root movement.”
- Use organic mushroom compost, cow, and chicken manure. Billy has found heavy metal contamination in manure from factory-farmed cows.
- Lay your rows down in the direction of the prevailing wind, so it will blow down rows rather than across them. Link your finger and hold it up. You know the trick.
- Billy recommends planting chives and garlic, insect repellent plants, within six inches of the fruits and vegetables insects are most likely to attack. Basil repels insects from tomatoes. Marigolds work too. “It’s using plants to grow plants,” Styles says. They’re assisting when you’re not there.”
- Want quick results? Billy suggests planting potatoes, which are very easy to grow from… potatoes. You just need a sunny spot, ‘eye-sprouting’ potatoes and rich soil. Cut a few square inches around the eyes to create new seedling. New potatoes will be ready to eat in around ten weeks. Mature potatoes, which can keep all winter in your root cellar for a month, will be ready in the fall.
- Planters, particularly dark ones, can overheat your roots in direct sunlight. Surround them with other companion plants to keep off pests and keep them cool.