How to plant a pandemic garden
As COVID-19 exposes the precarious state of America’s food supply, chefs and historians say planting a garden can grow food – and community – to get us through difficult times.
As the country locked down in March to flatten the COVID-19 curve and the economy shed jobs, the U.S. was faced with a perverse juxtaposition: hundreds of thousands of pounds of food, unable to make its way to school lunches or grocery shelves, being plowed under in fields across the country at the same time lines of vehicles looped for miles outside food banks.
It’s symptomatic of a precariously balanced mechanism for how we feed this nation, said Jackson Lamb, professor in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s School of Hospitality. As the pandemic stretches into the summer, it’s a predicament Americans can expect to grow more pronounced, not less so.
“We’re going to see disruption in our food-supply chain again and again,” Lamb said.
But the chef sees a solution in our own yards, on patios and in kitchens: urban gardening. Growing your own food is more than a matter of self-sustenance; it’s a way to support your community in a crisis.
Lamb, who dedicated his sabbatical study to food insecurity, waste, rescue and redistribution and is a former board member for Denver-based food bank We Don’t Waste, will teach MSU Denver students how to plant their own pandemic gardens in his Urban Agriculture course launching this week. Coursework includes kits to grow 10 herbs and six lettuces in a space as small as an apartment kitchen.
The concept of growing your own food during times of struggle dates to World War I, said Cecilia Gowdy-Wygant, faculty member in MSU Denver’s Department of History.
“The spirit was, ‘If you grow for yourself, you also have an abundance to give to a neighbor or those in need,’” she said.
“War gardens,” as they were called before victory was a given in World War I, are a specialty of Gowdy-Wygant, who is also head of the History Department at Front Range Community College. Established as a result of Germany blocking the United Kingdom’s ports in an attempt to starve the island nation, the gardens in the U.S. began producing food specifically to ship overseas to sustain our ally. The practice reemerged several decades later in World War II and resulted in more than 40 million gardens. This proved to be a critical support for the war effort in both conflicts; similarly important was the Women’s Land Army: a widespread mobilization of women into agricultural roles that put out an initial call for 60,000 participants and ended up with 10 times that.
“We underestimate the kindness, compassion and willingness to help – if you put the call out, people will show up to help,” Gowdy-Wygant said. “Americans rose to the challenge before; today, it’s just as important to remember that history and spirit of planting a garden for both others and ourselves.”
She also noted the personal health benefits that come with gardening, from the food itself and the visceral, therapeutic impact of getting one’s hands in the soil.
Lamb echoed this sentiment, reflecting on an age-old practice that benefits community and character.
“You get such satisfaction from picking the very first tomato out of your garden and eating it,” he said. “There’s just nothing like it.”
Chef Jackson Lamb’s tips for first-time urban farmers
It can start as simply as a cardboard egg carton with dirt and seeds. But for the sake of convenience, start with presprouted seedlings.
Make sure your eyes don’t get bigger than your space! For instance, green zucchini is great, but it grows too successfully and will take up a lot of space. Heirloom strains of tomatoes are tasty – try Yellow Pear, Russian Persimmon and Black Zebra – but they also take a lot of space. Peppers can work if you have a limited area; just start with a small variety. Jalapeños are nice — they don’t overrun a garden and bear fruit in 55 days. Basil, rosemary and thyme, in three separate containers on the windowsill, are all you need for a chef’s kitchen.
Watch the water
We tend to overwater our plants. The real trick is to judge by just sticking your finger in the soil. Damp is good; wet is bad; dry can be beneficial – the roots grow out, looking for water.
Speaking of soil, Denver dirt isn’t great for growing. What you need is soil with nutrients. Composting is great for this (see below), but you can also buy soil at retailers. Also: go through plant boxes for any old roots and refreshing with at least 50% new soil if using the previous year’s – otherwise, it’s a roll of the dice.
All winter long, I build a personal compost cache that makes its way into spring beds. Banana peels, apples, lettuce – if you’re concerned about the Earth and reducing our landfills, don’t throw away anything biodegradable.
The science behind compost is simple – you need green matter and dead/brown matter, which could even include shredded newspaper and coffee grounds. Greens attach to this as they start to decompose. Denver residents can compost through the city (for a fee), while there are various compost-bin options to keep flies away.