Hindsight from 2020

Story by Jill McSheehy

Photo provided

The wheels on the shopping cart hummed. Even though it was a Thursday afternoon, March 12 to be exact, the white noise of the grocery store hushed to near silence. The normally smooth faces of fully-stocked grocery shelves were pockmarked with sold-out items. The paper goods aisle looked like bread aisles of grocery stores in advance of a hurricane. My shoulders tensed.

Within weeks “out of stock” became the norm, and grocery stores limited quantities of certain items. A sense of wariness and dread spread over us all. As a society, we plunged collectively toward the unknown.

Sure, the toilet paper shortage unnerved us, but realistically we knew we could survive without it. When we stared at empty shelves where the canned vegetables always sat, though, we tensed a bit more. 

Was our food supply at risk?

Though no one — except perhaps hardcore preppers — escaped the brewing angst, I daresay I felt more secure than most. Early crops already grew in the garden, summer tomatoes and peppers waited their turn in the grow room, and plastic bins bulged with a fully-stocked seed supply for 2020.

Of course, I had no “advance notice” of what March 2020 would bring. Nor had I adopted “prepper” practices. Instead, my shoulders relaxed a bit more because my garden had been fully planned in January.

Lest you think that statement has a boastful intent, I assure you, it does not. I plan my garden during the darkest days for two reasons. One is a more practical one — some seeds in our area need to be started in January, which means I have to get my seed orders in early. But the second reason could be categorized as a coping mechanism, I suppose. The darkness of winter takes a toll on my mental health, and preparing for my next garden brings light to an otherwise dim time of year.

As winter bears down, we still face unknowns. But unlike 2020, we have the hindsight to understand the importance of preparation. Though none of us want to see the insecurity of our food supply as we saw in the spring of 2020, it’s also naive to assume it can’t happen again — or worse. 

At worst, we need home gardens to help buffer any food supply shortages that may occur. At best, we need home gardens to bolster our mental and physical health. There’s simply no downside to taking these dark days (literally and figuratively) and beginning to plan our gardens for 2021. Here are some ways to get started.

List the vegetables, fruit, and herbs your family regularly eats. Then, research which ones you could reasonably grow in the space you have.

Don’t forget the flowers. More than any other year, the flowers and herbs I grew in 2020 brought life and joy to a hard year. Some flowers, such as calendula, echinacea, and nasturtium provide medicinal and/or edible benefits. They also attract and nourish important pollinators.

Decide on a location. Do you have room for an in-ground garden or raised beds? Or are container vegetables more realistic? Purchase containers and soil now to have ready for planting.

Assess the sun. Sunlight is important for food to grow. Avoid the north side of your house, and try to keep the garden area away from where large trees cast too much shade during the growing season.

Purchase seeds early. No one knows what the state of the 2021 seed supply will be, but if 2020 is any indication, it’s best to order what you need as early as you can. 

Acquire canning supplies now. If you plan on preserving any of your garden’s bounty, make sure you have plenty of canning jars, lids, and other supplies on hand. In my experience, the toilet paper shortage in spring 2020 was nothing compared to the canning lid shortage in summer 2020. 

Make plans to plant your first crops. In our area, you can start planting many cold-tolerant plants like arugula, spinach, kale, and other greens as early as January or February. Plant peas, carrots, radishes, lettuce, and potatoes the first week of March. You’d be surprised at how early you can plant and grow these crops in our area.

Like a harsh wake-up call, 2020 taught us the wisdom in being prepared. But planting and growing our own food doesn’t start and end with its utilitarian and practical purposes. Growing our own gardens boosts our mental health, provides nourishing food, lightens the load when the food chain gets stressed, and offers connection with nature and one another. 

No matter what this final month of this year looks like for each of us, one thing remains — the more we grow ourselves, the better we all are for it. As we take the time in the garden’s off-season to dream of spring and all it brings, may our future gardens rise to the top of our list.