Power to the People: Drawing Strength from the Pandemic
By Barbara Damrosch
Barbara Damrosch is a farmer and co-owner of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine; author of “The Garden Primer” and “Theme Gardens” and co-author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; and a past MOFGA president. Her keynote address at the 2020 Common Ground Country Fair is available on MOFGA’s YouTube channel. The following article has been excerpted from Damrosch’s speech.
Most people think that the purpose of Daylight Saving Time is to save energy, but most studies say that it doesn’t do that at all. So why bother? We’ve forgotten that the original reason for bothering had more to do with food shortages during both world wars, with so many farmers off fighting. Home gardeners were enlisted to plant War Gardens in World War I, followed by Victory Gardens in World War II. Changing the clocks gave an extra hour at the end of each day for people to tend these plots after they came home from their jobs. Many were housewives newly enlisted into the workforce; during World War II they produced almost half of the nation’s food in their Victory Gardens. Eleanor Roosevelt planted one on the White House lawn.
Those gardens were more than a footnote to our country’s history. Home food gardening always surges in times of crisis, like the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. People picked up their hoes and sowed vegetables en masse in 1973 after the oil embargo hit. They did it again during the recession of 2007-2008, brought on by the mortgage meltdown. Seed companies were swamped with orders for peas and carrots, not petunias and cosmos. In some ways it’s a reassuring trend, because our urge to take more control of our own food production is a sane one in times of insecurity, especially if it’s right in our backyards. It was Henry Ford – of all people – who said, “No unemployment insurance can be compared to an alliance between man and a plot of land.”
In between these crises the interest in food gardening declines. After World War II our food supply became even more centralized. Farms were consolidated and relied heavily on the petrochemical fertilizers that emerged from the cauldrons of the gunpowder factories. Before the war, most Americans probably knew enough about gardening to plant those Victory Gardens with some degree of confidence and success. But all that changed. On a winter trip through France and Italy in 1995, I was so impressed by the gardening culture that survived there, with leeks and winter greens growing in most yards. Not so at home.
From the ‘70s on, more and more people started to question the quality of industrial food – how it affects our bodies and the environment in which it’s grown. The food movement, as it is now commonly called, is no longer a hippie one or even an elitist gourmet one. There has been no letup in the trend toward small, organic farms which, despite what people may tell you, can feed the world. Local farmers’ markets are still sprouting up everywhere. Traditional foodways are being protected and restored. Social justice has been added to the requirements for a righteous farm. We have a better food culture than we once did; though it is far from universal, and we have a long way to go.
Where is home gardening in all of this? A bit of my personal history will give you an idea of what I have observed. In 1976, like so many others, I read the Bible of the back-to-the-land movement: “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing. This caused me to leave a career of teaching and writing in New York City and move to Connecticut so I could grow my own food. I worked for an organic farm and nursery and began writing exclusively about gardening. I wanted to start a vegetable farm but had no money with which to buy land. Then on July 9, 1991, I walked into Helen Nearing’s tiny greenhouse on the coast of Maine. There was Helen and a farmer named Eliot Coleman, who was helping her tie up her tomato plants. Like me, Eliot had no money when he decided to start a farm back in 1968, but Helen and Scott sold him a sizeable chunk of their land for $33 an acre – the amount they paid for it in 1953. (Scott, as a radical economist, didn’t believe in unearned income.) Five months after we met, Eliot and I were married. There I was, farming with him on former Nearing land.
The year before, I had gotten a job on the PBS show “The Victory Garden”; I soon swapped that for a show Eliot and I hosted together on the Learning Channel called “Gardening Naturally.” We reached a whole new home gardening audience. In 2003 The Washington Post’s gardening editor asked me, “How can we get gardeners to grow food?” That led to the 15-year run of my weekly column, “A Cook’s Garden.”
Were the people gardening yet? In 2008 (the mortgage meltdown, remember?), I got a frantic call from my publisher saying that the sales of vegetable seedlings were suddenly off the charts. Would Eliot and I please write a book about growing your own food – with recipes? Here was an opportunity. Magazines had been asking for stories about growing your own food in tiny plots – say, 10-by-12 feet – because anything more ambitious would scare people off. We disagreed with that. Our approach would be: “It’s fine to start small, but plan big.” You will not feed your family from a dainty little “parterre.”
Your first kitchen garden might only give you a summer of salads, which would be fine, but your next garden could give you enough food to feed your family for the year. The recommendation back in the Victory Garden days was that an acre could feed 40 people, and you would need 1,000 square feet to grow each member of the household’s vegetables for the year. (Your yield could approach twice that as you improve your skills and your soil.) Your plot would be big enough to include vegetables that take up a lot of space but are great survival foods, such as winter squash. You’d choose them for food volume per square foot and for storability. You’d grow open-pollinated varieties that you could save seed from, in case all goes to hell and it’s the only way to have a garden.
In the four years we took to finish the book, the economy rebounded, the panic ceased and the home food gardening craze was over. What we had tentatively called “How to Feed Yourself from the Garden in Good Times and Bad” was considered a risky title. The book was published as “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” Growing food was only mentioned on the back cover. Food culture had beaten garden culture once again.
What do we do to change that? I was born in 1942 as part of the last generation of people who could actually learn about gardening techniques from their parents. Books, videos and other media certainly can play a role, but I often think that the best new horticultural idea I’ve encountered in my lifetime was Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. Eliot and I were invited to visit it and watched a class of hyperactive tweens totally engrossed in planting, trellis-building and tending chickens. Eight-year-olds prepared a meal of wonton soup, stuffing the wontons with vegetables they had grown and chopping up more vegetables for the broth.
What is a more democratic way of teaching a valuable subject to all citizens than incorporating it into our public schools? That was Waters’ dream, and it has spread. The small town I live in has a school garden with a greenhouse and a part-time gardening teacher on staff. A number of neighboring towns do as well. Another bright flash of hope was seeing Michelle Obama launch her all-season home garden project on the White House lawn, where she brought local school children in to enjoy gardening.
There’s also some possibility that things will change on their own. COVID-19 has fueled much anxiety about disruptions in the food supply. It’s no big surprise to anyone that we’re seeing the latest huge spurt in new home vegetable gardens. Through a conversation with someone at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, I learned that vegetable seed sales were through the roof, just as in 2008, but at such high volume that the company was briefly paralyzed. At local nurseries, transplants were selling out too. Our Four Season Farm set up a little emergency seedling stand at the beginning of the driveway.
It is nice to imagine that when COVID is under control, life will be more normal again. But will it? This crisis does not have just one cause. It’s a big, ugly dump truck load of trouble piled upon us: not just the pandemic and its consequent ills – such as mental stress, isolation and joblessness – but ills that come from other directions, such as the racial violence woven into the fabric of our country and the deepening political divide. Add to that natural disasters resulting from something called climate change. What a feeble name for what I prefer to call “the human domination of the planet and a way of life that threatens all its species, including our own, and rips apart the entire web of life.”
We are tasked with coming up with creative solutions to a new state of the world. We must learn to live locally, without obsessive travel and fossil fuels. We need more small organic farmers, making the soil better than they found it and helping to repair the damaged earth, water and air. They’ll need land, even if they have no funds to buy it. Some solutions already exist beyond the homestead model. Farms can be collectively run by a group of like-minded folks. Incubator farms provide new farmers with a few acres, plus shared equipment and marketing space, so they can build their skills before they take the ownership plunge, and better succeed when they do. Farm link programs match landless farmers with people who have acreage they’d like to see farmed, not as tenant farmers but as an asset to the landowners’ lives as well. There’s even a mini-trend among land developers in which housing projects offer, as an amenity, not a golf course but a small farm that provides each unit with wholesome food, just steps away.
I have sometimes read about creatures that are inherently savvy about imminent events – like animals that race inland and upland when they sense that a tsunami is coming or dogs that can tell if you’re about to have an epileptic fit. I would like to think that we too have some innate scrap of good sense that tells us, when the outlook is dark, to head for the nearest piece of earth and make it grow food. Suddenly the reasons why we think it is impossible start to disappear. “I don’t have time” turns into “How can time be made?” “My kids won’t eat garden food” turns into “They might if they help to grow it.”
Other obstacles are more daunting: the yard is tiny and shaded, or there is no yard. That’s when you need a new idea. Find a gardening partner with a bigger yard; you can share the labor and the yields. Or borrow a plot in exchange for food. Or if you can’t physically rip up your big lawn and grow vegetables on it, make a partner of someone who can.
Community gardens in vacant lots and city parks have been around for quite a while. We need more of them. Any kind of institution with a lawn could host community garden plots: a school, a hospital, a bank, a church, a corporation, a factory, a retirement home, a trailer park. The Edible Schoolyard was asphalt before Waters took a jackhammer to it.
If your plot is still too small, there are gardening techniques that let you make the most of limited space: Growing vegetables such as beans, cucumbers and tomatoes vertically on trellises greatly multiplies their yield per square foot. Cut-and-come-again crops like spinach and kale give you a longer and more bounteous harvest than a row of head lettuces that don’t re-grow. Twofer crops like beets and turnips, where you can eat both the roots and leaves, obviously give you more food. Interplanting two crops can double the space: Plant quick-growing scallions in the same bed as slower-growing Brussels sprouts. The first crop will be harvested before the second one can shade it out. After ripping out an early crop of spinach or lettuce, fill the empty bed with fall cabbage or broccoli. Extend the garden’s life with simple season extension devices such as cold frames, quick hoops and greenhouses. Landscape with edibles: Train grape vines on the arbor, grow berry bushes along the fence and plant fruit trees for shade. If well-tended, even the most utilitarian food garden will be so beautiful that it deserves a place of honor in the front yard – if that’s where the most space is, and the most sun.
Sometimes lack of confidence can deter a would-be gardener more than any real barrier. It has become normal to outsource so much in our lives – fixing the car, fixing the roof – but growing food is one of the few things that is actually easy to do for yourself. Gardening is so often portrayed as a battle with Nature – one that those without the mythical green thumb will surely lose. That’s because growing food has strayed so far from Nature’s program.
Good gardens should rely more on biology than chemistry. They are built on the principle of a fertile, living soil teeming with beetles, ants, worms and a celestial choir of billions of microbes singing hallelujah. Compost, crop rotations, green manures, cover crops and natural mulches are all sound organic gardening practices that will give you a bountiful, healthy harvest. Organic gardening is so often portrayed as a list of no-nos. Don’t spray with this, don’t dust with that. And yeah, don’t. But the real point is to make your soil so good and your plants so healthy that you don’t need those poisons.
Weeds? There will be weeds. But here’s what to do. Cultivate the soil between your plants frequently to halt weeds when they are tiny. If you get distracted and fail to do this and the weeds take hold, tell yourself to go out to the garden and weed for just half an hour, no more. The order you create will lead you down the rows. You may find it hard to stop weeding even as night starts to fall.
A weeded garden – not to mention a basket of delicious just-picked produce – seems like a triumph at a time when it’s easy to feel powerless. Imagine what it would be like if we all did it: how strong we would feel to have a big chunk of our food supply squarely in our own grubby hands.
I don’t know what the next few years will bring. Life is likely to be different in ways we don’t yet know. I hope these differences are the result of creative thinking, good science, truth-telling and a willingness to cooperate and collaborate with each other. I hope that when life returns to some form of normal and I drive by your house, I might catch a glimpse of a garden – with you in it.