The novel coronavirus pandemic has sent seismic waves of disruption through our lives, upsetting daily routines and lifetime dreams. It isn’t surprising that people are seeking new outlets to express themselves, and to relieve the boredom of sheltering at home and the stress of dealing with the unknown. Gardening – all kinds of gardening – provides just such an outlet.
Online seed and plant sellers, as well as the few stores that are open, are swamped with orders, earlier in the season than usual. One example is High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont, that is experiencing a 300-500% increase in online orders. Many of the buyers are new to gardening, and resources are popping up to provide instruction and support for their efforts. We may be seeing a resurgence of interest similar to the 1940s when the Victory Garden boom occurred. A 1943 Gallup Poll reported that 21 million American planned to have a vegetable garden, encouraged by the government to help with the war effort. Their reasons, like today, varied from wanting more control over their lives and food supply, to contributing to the war effort and food shortages. Few were thinking of gardening as a pleasure, but many of those who continued after the war did so because, in addition to the hard work and challenges, they discovered the pleasure of growing plants and being close to the earth.
The 1940s represented the beginning of the 60-year career of Lyman Wood that revolved around gardening. He worked with Ed and Carolyn Robinson to write and promote “The Have-More Plan: A Little Land, A Lot of Living,” based on the Robinsons’ homesteading experience in Connecticut. It became the how-to resource and model for living for thousands of veterans returning from World War II. This led to creation of the Country Book Store and eventually involvement with the original Rototiller and founding of Garden Way. You can read all about it in his biography, “What a Way to Live and Make a Living: The Lyman P. Wood Story,” by Roger Griffith.
For Lyman, vegetable gardening was hobby, laboratory, business proposition and lifestyle. His mind was as fertile as his gardens, constantly sprouting new ideas. Green manure crops, composting, earthworms, wide row planting, the earliest and sweetest corn, peas floating in cream, big wheeled carts, front- versus rear-tined rototillers: everyday, he was conjuring innovative approaches to how best to ease the effort and find joy in his favorite activity, and how to market the products to achieve those ends.
The result was thousand of delicious meals for his family and the growth of Garden Way from a struggling mail order operation trying to sell the Troy-Bilt Tiller to a diversified family of companies located in Troy, New York, and Chittenden County, Vermont, that developed and sold books on country living and gardening, and that manufactured and sold the Garden Way Carts, cider presses, harvesting tools and kitchen equipment. Originally sales were all through direct mail, but eventually Garden Way Living Centers popped up around the United States that were the go-to retail outlets for gardeners looking for everything from seeds to gardening know-how, plus country living related equipment ranging from the Garden Way products to other tools and equipment – even wood burning stoves.
As a kid growing up, I absorbed much of this interest in the vegetable garden. I was talked into being the cover girl on the pamphlet, “Let an Earthworm be your Garbage Man,” certainly not every 5th grader’s dream. I showed up in ads for the earliest Countryman’s Carts, effortlessly pushing a load of Adirondack chairs. My brother was in other ads demonstrating the ease of tilling with the earliest Rototillers. We both resisted efforts to do a larger share of the weeding, but relished the tomatoes and sweet corn that was harvested.
The garden bug stayed with me, and ever after, no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve had a garden. I’m lucky that it is in my DNA and I feel compelled each spring to start seeds, buy plants, till the garden (although I do now get help with that), and then spend hours planning, laying out rows, digging, planting, mulching, watering, weeding, tending. I’m not finicky about it, in fact the results often look random. But I know each plant and encourage its growth. I love the feeling of warm soil in my hands. I’m delighted if a shovelful of dirt is teeming with earthworms, and capture some for my house plants. I lose track of time and find my mind focused on the living things that surround me as I sit and weed the beans, or stand and hoe a row of onions. What a treat when I pop the first sweet cherry tomato in my mouth, and snack on sugar snap peas right off the vine. What could possibly taste better!
Each gardener’s experience is different. You may approach it scientifically (much like Lyman), and find pleasure in analyzing yields and developing the most successful techniques. Your aesthetic sensibilities may come first, with design and color guiding your hands. You may take out your frustrations with vigorous hoeing. Your inner child may appear as you are tempted to run through the sprinklers. Whatever your personality and reason for finding yourself in the garden, I hope it brings you pleasure as well as baskets full of fresh vegetables for your table and freezer.
What better way to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day than to head outside and spend time in a garden.
April 22, 2020