With many staying at home to minimize social contact that might spread the coronavirus, Arkansans are heading to our yards and into the sunshine. Home gardening, we’re discovering, is an ideal way to escape cabin fever, take control over our food supply and even supplement children’s homeschooling with the wonders of nurturing new life.
Janet Carson, Arkansas Living columnist and recently retired horticulturalist for the University of Arkansas Extension Service, says one small way we are fortunate is that this pandemic hit Arkansas at prime gardening season.
“Everything warm-season can be planted now, from tropicals in containers to annuals and shrubs, vegetables, fruits and berries,” she says. “And connecting with the earth just makes you feel better.”
The rise of backyard gardening
Carson says that home gardening of foods has been trending upward for almost a decade. Interest in growing
backyard fruits, herbs and vegetables already was the highest it’s been since the victory gardens of World War II.
During the first and second world wars, the U.S. government organized widespread campaigns for Americans to plant “victory gardens” to grow food for American troops and the people of Europe. Gardening during the wars became a deeply patriotic, community-focused effort that took place in yards, schools and any spare patch of fertile land.
Today the concept of victory gardening is spreading even faster. The difference is that instead of growing food for troops and people a world away, Arkansans are newly focused on growing food for our families and neighbors. Many workers also are enduring a coronavirus-related abrupt loss of income and savings. Looking for more economical ways to get food on the table just makes sense.
Carson sees a need for home gardening now more than ever. “Everybody’s shopping for non-perishable items because they store longer, so they need to go to the grocery store less. But for fresh produce, people are saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have food that we could just walk out to the yard and pick? And we’ve got the time to do it now.’ To me, that is the big thing we’re going to need: locally grown food sources.”
Victory gardening, 2020 style
A victory garden was precisely what Fort Smith couple Beth and Aaron Price had in mind. Beth says that
although she had not had a full-scale garden in years, she learned to garden as a child from her grandmother in Cabot. “My grandmother, Betty, was my best friend, and she’s who taught me. Growing up with a garden in the South, there’s so much nostalgia for me associated with it.
“I’m excited about things I remember doing as a child by her side, like canning what we grow. Unfortunately
she’s not around to tell me if I’m doing things right or wrong, but I’m channeling her. I know she would be super proud of us for doing what we’re doing right now.”
The Prices delved into their project with discipline and gusto. Aaron is new to gardening, but has been studying
gardening best practices online, and made a spreadsheet of the 30 or so types of seeds he’d bought, mapping every step of the process, including when to sow and harvest.
Carson says learning before you dig in is smart. “A lot of people who don’t know how to garden, if they don’t have success, they don’t try it again. That’s why I always try to stress, ‘Know what you’re doing when you’re doing it.’”
There’s no shame in starting small, even with just a few pots, she says. “Container gardening is especially good for beginners. Just start gardening.”
Aaron says he’d been planning to begin a garden this year already, but the pandemic kicked his plans into high gear: “It went from the idea for a hobby to something that may become a little more serious down the road. There will be a time when either we’re not comfortable with going to the store or aren’t able to get fresh produce, so being able to get that in our backyard is helpful.”
Feeding friends and neighbors
Beth says, from the start, it has been a community-enriching project. She posted pictures of their first garden bed on Facebook, telling her neighbors, “Park Hill garden people unite, we got you for trades! Or just giving. We’re here for that also.”
She reports, “I’ve had six different neighbors reach out to me after that and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m planting.’ So, trades in the neighborhood are already a thing. It’s fun, too. It brings about community, and it’s kind of nice that everyone’s willing to — no pun intended — dig deep and help each other for the greater good.”
That’s a concept familiar to Jack Caperton, a director at Woodruff Electric Cooperative. Every year at his home in Cotton Plant, Caperton plants a huge garden — much more than he and his wife, Carolyn, need — specifically to help feed their tiny community. “I reckon it’s between two and three acres,” he says. “I plant some of just about everything you can imagine. We gotta look out for folks.”
Caperton says he gives his garden bounty away to about 20 households in the community including church members and other friends. Because the nearest store is a Kroger in Brinkley, about 13 miles away, he says it’s more convenient to have local fresh produce available all summer right outside his door.
A true farmer, Caperton’s biggest worries have been about the abundance of rain in recent weeks delaying his planting. But he’s determined to get his garden growing strong. He says staying at home more during the pandemic hasn’t bothered him because he spends so much time outside, anyway. “I am out here all the time. I love it. My wife has to make me come in and take breaks,” he says.
Brandy Davis and her husband, Ken, are raising their young boys in Mount Vernon, in rural Faulkner County. Brandy says they ordered seeds early and are planning successive plantings with an emphasis on high-yield plants. “They are all things that are prolific, so we will have extra for family and neighbors if all goes well, since we live in such a small community here in Mount Vernon.”
She said her family usually does a smaller garden, but they are taking it much more seriously in 2020.
“We are shifting our planting to things we know will grow and that we will eat. Usually we order those and a few extra things to try and see how they do, but we cut back those extra items. We bought way more potatoes this year than ever because we can stretch meals with those more than anything else.
“It’s going to be interesting this year. A lot more work than our usual casual garden, but worth it.”
The Davises plan to incorporate gardening into their sons’ lesson plans. For instance, she says, their 7-year-
oldwill do a science experiment that involves planting sprouts indoors.
Carson says she is a big fan of gardening with children. “Kids love to garden. Since you’ve got kids at home, what better time to start gardening with them?”
She says research supports the idea that gardening enriches children’s all-round education. “This can be their living classroom; you can take your classroom outside. Have them learn to measure. Use the garden for teaching math and science and even English through journaling about the garden. It can be an educational tool, as
well as a fun one.”
Another benefit of having children raise fruits and vegetables? “I’ve taught youth gardening, and I’ve always found that when kids have a hand in growing it, they are much more likely to try it and eat it,” Carson says. “They’re curious about what they’ve grown and proud of it.”
With the rapidly changing news cycle and economic shifts, it’s hard to predict which businesses will be open or closed in the coming weeks and months. But Carson says Arkansans should have plenty of garden resources available, from online sites to seed catalogs to local nurseries and even big-box stores that ship seeds and supplies directly to your home. Farmers markets are also continuing to sell fresh produce, albeit with enforced modifications for social distancing.
Carson says, “I encourage people to buy local as often as you can. Develop a relationship with your closest nursery, and talk to them about how they can help get you what you need.” Some nurseries are taking online orders, or offering curbside pickup, even local delivery.
She says another important resource Arkansans have is the county extension offices. “All the county extension offices are open. You can’t go into them, but they’re manned Monday to Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. You can still take your soil samples in; you just have to drop them at the door, then they come get them. Some of the counties are even doing seminars by Zoom. See what’s available in your county.”
Plant what you love
Beyond fruits, herbs and vegetables, Carson encourages planting cheerful seasonal color, whether tropicals,
annuals, perennials, shrubs or trees. “Most everything is in season, so plant what you love. So many people are on ‘staycations’ now, so you might as well make your staycation as pretty as possible.”
Beth Price says spending time in their expanding garden rejuvenates her when she comes home from work.
“It’s been a blast. We’ve been having ‘garden watch’ every day. Our green beans are coming out now, and I love seeing the green peeking up through the soil,” she says. “It’s bringing a joy, a simple joy, now when nothing is simple, and that’s been refreshing to us.”