It happened during World War II. It happened during the Great Recession of 2008. And it’s happening again as millions hunker down amid the economic and social deep-freeze of the COVID-19 era.
Nothing else spurs people to reach for spades and seeds like a crisis.
As America joined the war in Europe some 80 years ago, citizens were encouraged to grow Victory Gardens as a morale booster and as a bulwark against possible food shortages brought on by the growing conflict. Now, for reasons that are eerily similar, they’re turning over soil in their backyards to plant what many are calling “pandemic gardens.”
Even with the social-distancing restrictions that have made selling vegetable starts, flowers and supplies a chore, “We’re rockin’,” says Jack Sumner, longtime proprietor of Highland Farm on Tower Hill Road. “We’re doing double what we normally do.”
Sumner sees two big drivers behind the uptick in demand – not just for mainstream gardening supplies, but also landscaping. The first that comes to mind is plain boredom, he says.
For much of the last two months, people basically haven’t been able to go anywhere. Until May 9, the state had been under a general stay-at-home order. Restaurants have been shuttered except for take-out, delivery and curbside pickup. All but essential retail stores were either forced to close or operate under painful limitations, including – for a time – flower and garden shops.
“People stay home, they’ve got nothing to do,” says Sumner. “So they’re beautifying their yards.”
Sumner says some of the most popular items are compost and raised bed mix – which indicates to him that folks have been doing their homework about how to start a successful garden. It’s all about the getting the soil in good shape. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil is the foundation of everything that happens later.
It’s not all veggies, either. Sumner and other garden shops say they’re doing a brisk business in the heavy-duty stuff of landscaping – loam, mulch and other raw materials – as folks with time on their hands tackle the big jobs. And delivery is more important than ever as Highland Farm and other nurseries maintain compliance with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s social-distancing and mandatory face-mask directives.
“It’s masks up over here,” he says.
But Sumner says the latest installment of America’s return to the soil isn’t just a response to pandemic-induced boredom. Like the fears of food-rationing that fueled the proliferation of Victory Gardens during World War II, deeper concerns about the strength of the food supply have become a catalyst for people to grow some of their own.
All it takes to stoke the whiff of worry is a trip to the supermarket. Major stores are restricting customers to no more than two packages of meat as outbreaks of COVID-19 at some of the nation’s biggest meat-processing facilities have crimped supply pipelines. Staples like flour and many kinds of fresh produce are often in short supply.
“People are getting nervous,” says Sumner. “I just think people are getting into, ‘Where’s your next head of lettuce coming from?’”
Julie Gammino Carberry agrees. She’s the administrator of Rhode Island Backyard Gardeners, a Facebook group for hobby gardeners that’s seen a spike in new membership during the last few weeks.
“I probably have had as many requests for new members just in the last month or two than I had in the entire three years that the group has been around,” said
Gammino Carberry. “The group is definitely growing. People are looking to add gardening to their repertoire of things they’re doing.”
Most of the chatter on Rhode Island Backyard Gardeners is from people looking for tips and advice on how to grow tomatoes, squash and other vegetables. COVID-19 has done nothing to change that.
But Gammino Carberry detects a current of concern among members that’s more akin to Facebook groups devoted to survivalism and homesteading.
“There’s quite a bit of talk about potential food shortages,” she says. “I think there’s a slight concern in the back of some people’s minds that in the event there is a food shortage, maybe I can grow some of my own food and sustain my family in that way.”
More members are swapping seeds than they used to, too, which Gammino Carberry thinks is another indication that members aren’t just talking about gardening – they’re doing it.
It might also be because they’re having trouble getting seeds through to the catalog vendors.
Some were so swamped with orders in late March and April that they stopped taking new ones, essentially suspending operations. Washington-based Territorial Seeds, for example, told customers that it wouldn’t accept any more orders until it had processed its backlog.
More recently the company announced that it was taking orders again and would attempt to continue doing so, but it warned customers to be ready for the unexpected.
“As we move forward, it’s unknown to us what the order volume will be,” Territorial President Tom Johns told customers. “If we find ourselves getting uncomfortably behind in shipping, we may need to cease taking new orders for short periods to focus solely on shipping existing orders.”
Of course, the business of gardening got its last big boost during around 2009, when the financial meltdown that caused what came to be known as the Great Recession resulted in mass unemployment and Americans grew concerned about stretching their food budgets. With more than 30 million Americans presently unemployed as a result of COVID-19, a figure that will probably worsen before it improves, food insecurity will likely remain a significant driver of garden-related merchandising for some time.
But some see another factor that has nothing to do with scarcity, fiscal strain or boredom that’s been propping up interest in gardening for years, and which is likely to continue to do so long after the pandemic fades into the background – whenever that is.
Amid a proliferation of GMO foods, fuzzy guidelines about labeling and supermarket shelves jammed with processed products, the self-tended backyard plot may be one of the last places where folks can find something they know is fresh, natural and healthy.
A backyard gardener is the ultimate “locavore” in the plot-to-plate movement.
“People have been doing that for years,” said Wendy Godfrin of Clark Farms in Matunuck. “That’s been trending. It’s one way to save money and also to know what you’re putting on the table.”