There’s something about seeing empty food shelves at the grocery store that makes a person think about being more self-sufficient.
Right now, shelves aren’t as empty as they were at the end of March, when pandemic panic took over, people filling shopping carts with canned foods and rice and beans.
Still, it provides perspective. A new take on things. A thought that maybe all those crazy preppers aren’t quite so crazy after all. Or at least that being ready might be helpful.
Victory Gardens, popular during both world wars, were an attempt to reduce pressure on the food supply system. They sprung up on private property and public land and provided food for the troops and those at home. But they were also considered a morale booster, a way for citizens to feel empowered and to contribute to the stability of the nation.
Right now, the country isn’t at war, technically speaking. But the COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for people to stay home. It has affected the economy. It’s caused deaths and illness. And as a result, some people are feeling the need to empower themselves. Gardening is a way to do that, with the extra bonus of providing fresh food, something people are, perhaps, more appreciative of these days.
The Community Garden gears up for planting
Jessica Rinks, founding member of Forest Park’s Community Garden, said she’s seen more demand this year than in previous years for plots at the community garden.
People who’ve had a plot in past years get first dibs this year, and there is already a waiting list that’s pretty long. The garden has 54 plots, which includes five that grow food exclusively for the Forest Park Food Panty run out of the Howard Mohr Community Center.
“So we have plots for 49 families,” said Rinks. Generally, she said, the plots appeal to people who live in condos or apartments and don’t have a backyard for gardening.
Rinks said people might have different priorities or reasons for starting a garden this spring.
“Some people might be thinking that food should be planted to prevent going to the store so frequently,” said Rinks. Social distancing might relax during the summer months, but it’s impossible to predict what the future will bring with a pandemic the world has never seen before.
“I think in general,” said Rinks, “people are thinking more strategically about planting food.” She added that with proper rotation, you can produce food all season. Lettuce, for example, grows in cooler months. Tomatoes and cucumbers are ripe toward the end of the summer.
The Community Garden board, said Rinks, wasn’t sure what to do with opening up this year during times of social distancing. After researching what city of Chicago public gardens were doing, she said they borrowed language from Chicago gardening, specifically wording about being mindful of having no large groups and maintaining social distancing.
The board took the proposal to the village and were given approval to open, as long as proper social distancing and other rules were followed.
“If you show up to garden, and there’s a group already there, you should come back later,” said Rinks. “We’re not having shared tools this year. We’re urging people to keep their distance.”
She added that there’s usually a big opening day celebration, which was supposed to be on May 2 this year, but that won’t happen. And although the group usually gathers to do big repairs together, that’s not in the plans this season either.
Her advice to those who’ve never gardened before? “Try it.” She wants people to acknowledge that they probably won’t replace everything they’d normally buy from a grocery store. But growing food gives people a sense of self-sufficiency.
“It’s a diversion too,” said Rinks. “It creates peace and hope. It’s relaxing. And when seeds germinate and you have plants, it feels magical.”
Home gardens growing
People with back yards are already planning their gardens, either starting seeds inside, setting up green houses, or getting soil ready for planting.
Rachell Entler’s greenhouse arrived a few days ago, and she and her family are excited for what she calls their “quarantine project.”
“Growing up we had a garden and I loved going out to get fresh raspberries. We had a small garden the last few years, but with all this time on our hands [now], I got a greenhouse for my birthday so we could start some seeds and I could cultivate my own plants,” said Entler.
Her son Jaxon plans to grow peppers, including ghost peppers for a friend who owns a BBQ restaurant.
Bambi Alexander said her grandmother and mother had huge gardens in the country with plenty of land, and she’s growing as much as she can in her relatively small space in Forest Park.
“I have an idea of a Victory Garden-type thing,” said Alexander, who gardens with her three children. Her husband keeps the beds together, turns the compost and spreads it. They also collect water in rain barrels. Their cold frame was built out of old storm windows. She uses recycled and found materials for potting and growing, and she includes seeds from seed swaps as well as local purchases.
So far, said Alexander, they’ve got some onions and oregano starting from last year. Radishes, kale and snap peas are already coming up in the back bed, and kale and lettuces in the cold frame.
On her back porch, she’s growing cherry and pear tomatoes, a pepper plant, three eggplants, and beans. Pumpkin, cantaloupe and watermelon just went in the ground, and she’s growing herbs in pots. She plans to add broccoli, parsley and cucumbers.
What’s different this year, said Alexander in an email, is in part her intentions in growing a vegetable garden.
“I hope to grow veggies and herbs for us to eat, partly because they are so fresh and it is really satisfying to go out with my four-year-old to pick radishes, lettuce, green beans and then make them for dinner,” said Alexander. “But also because it has been a difficult year to get groceries.” Multiple food allergies draw her to as much homemade food as possible, and it’s easier to know what you’re eating when you grow it yourself.
Denise Fullmer, who works with senior services at the Howard Mohr Community Center, is a chef by profession and a professor at Triton College since 2001. She was planning to teach a gardening class this summer, but it’s been canceled. Outdoor gardening classes don’t lend themselves well to distance learning. She will be teaching culinary math, though. And she’ll be working on her back-yard garden.
Originally from Arizona, Fullmer said that Forest Park is a special place.
“If I hadn’t found Forest Park, I would have moved back to Arizona,” she said.
Her house came with a greenhouse in the backyard, a structure that was never installed properly, said Fullmer. She tried for years to use it but was ready to give up when a neighbor volunteered to help her get it going again a few months ago.
They’ve rebuilt the panels and installed raised beds, a huge help since Fullmer’s double knee surgery. With new rich soil, she’s started seeds.
Outside the greenhouse she’s putting in raised beds too, which she’ll protect with chicken wire to keep animals out.
Fullmer, who lives on Troost not far from the cemetery, says she plants her front yard full of squash and pumpkins so the animals that wander over have something to eat. It’s a decoy garden, an attempt to prevent critters from attacking the “real” gardens.
“It’s the first line of defense for animals from the cemetery,” said Fullmer, who jokes with her other garden-growing neighbors about it. “They’ll fill up at my house and leave yours alone,” she tells them.
Fullmer lives on a triple lot, and she is planning to utilize a lot of space for vegetables this year, including lettuce, carrots, brussels sprouts, beets. And like all the other gardeners the Review spoke to, she’s growing for herself but also for friends, to give away.
Gardening is a ritual. It feels, like Rinks said, akin to magic. It provides food, certainly, but peace and hope as well.
“Gardening is not a rational act,” wrote the famous author Margaret Atwood, who, within some of her many novels, created both dystopian and apocalyptic worlds. “What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant. In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”