in trying times, go back to our roots

Story by Jill McSheehy

With every arm-stiffening, back-tightening load, my calf muscles burned in protest. Still, I willed myself to make it the last hundred feet.

Who needs a gym when you can push a wheelbarrow full of soil from one end of your yard to the other?

Finally reaching my destination — a newly-constructed raised bed — I hefted the wheelbarrow forward and let the soil spill out. I grabbed my shovel and scooped the remainder and spread it out.

Just a few more loads to go.

The sun dipped behind the towering pines in the western sky as I raced to get these beds filled. At that moment, a thought intruded my hurried pace.

This feels… normal.

Two weeks ago, my normal life upended in a span of 24 hours, like the rest of the world I suppose. Coming to terms with these changes and accepting that “social isolation” would be my new normal for the foreseeable future, I found myself taking walks outside and tackling garden tasks I would do on any spring day.

Clinging to gratitude anchored the chaos in my spirit. I whispered a prayer of thanks at the timing of this forced isolation — the beginning of my planting season. My kids couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t meet a friend for lunch. Our family couldn’t go to church.

But I could garden.

Within a week, visits to my gardening website spiked to record levels. I began getting messages from friends and strangers alike, asking about how to grow a garden. Soon mainstream media outlets began to report the surge in home gardening across the country.

It surprised me at first, but then it made sense. Motivations differed, of course. People who never had time for gardening before could suddenly start the hobby they had put off for “someday.” Empty grocery shelves of staple vegetables propelled others to consider growing their own. Young families searched for activities to do with their children at home, and gardening in the spring fit the need.

Comparisons to Victory Gardens of the first and second World Wars entered the common vernacular. History seems to bear witness that Americans turn to gardening when faced with a crisis. However, I’m not sure the comparison between yesteryear’s Victory Gardens and new gardens of 2020 can hold true.

Families planted Victory Gardens to feed their families, yes, but it was also a small way for those on the homefront to support the war effort and the service members fighting for freedom across the globe. With the backyard garden and laying hens providing vegetables and eggs for those at home, more food and supplies could be diverted to the troops. As many as two-thirds of American households in the World War II-era grew their own gardens, and an estimated 40 percent or more of all the produce grown in America at that time could be traced to Victory Gardens.

The reasons behind Victory Gardens may seem more pious compared to our desire to find something to do with our spare time or to create a back-up plan in case the limited vegetable supply at the grocery stores continues. However, it’s worth considering when reflecting on Victory Gardens that home gardening waned in the years after the war.

That begs the question: will America’s sudden interest in gardening die a slow death as COVID-19 settles into the history books?

Perhaps not.

A pre-COVID-19 population, normally passive participants in the food supply chain, has suddenly been thrust into the reality that the source of our food security can change overnight. Apocalyptic scenarios edge uncomfortably close, no longer just fodder for Hollywood screenwriters. While surely many of these 2020 home gardens will become a mere flash in the pan, I’m convinced others will remain.

For one thing, the eyes of budding gardeners are opening to the benefits of gardening to mental health. In a time of such uncertainty, gardening is certainly grounding. No longer are the clarion calls that gardening provides a balm for the spirit as well as strength to the body falling on deaf ears. New gardeners, for lack of a better term, will get hooked in 2020. Their lives, and their children’s lives, will never be the same.

In a world upended by this global pandemic, the reality of this crisis — and the broken lives in its wake — seems too much to bear. But the home garden surge in America reveals that our generation, just like the ones before us, seeks to cling to the good. Underneath the black cloak on our world, we search for the silver lining.

None of us knows yet precisely how much devastation this virus will leave in its wake. But for those who plant their first seeds, clear the cobwebs off the shovel from the back of the shed, or expand their gardens in a way they had never planned, I believe they will reap a harvest of more than this season’s bounty.

Grandparents will pass on latent skills to the younger generations. Adults will discover a new hobby, contributing to their physical and mental health for years to come. Children will learn how to grow food and pass it on to their children and beyond.

None of us wishes these skills will prove necessary for another crisis scenario. But should one come upon us in future years or decades, perhaps that generation will point to us like we point to our Victory Gardening great-grandparents. And perhaps they’ll remember us, call upon skills cultivated in 2020, and rest in the hope for a future beyond the crisis.