I am always fascinated by things that are mostly the same through the ages, but may change in terms of motivation or purpose. Gardening is one of those things.
During WWII, people would plant “victory gardens,” sometimes called “war gardens.” The government actually sent out propaganda encouraging it. The gardens helped people keep their minds off the war and also helped offset food shortages caused by it. Gardening was no new thing, but giving it a cause helped promote it to new levels.
Over the years, other local and national events, big and small, have kept the gardening hobby vibrant. People have enjoyed competitive gardening, for example, growing things to enter into fairs. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has breathed new life into the hobby, for some of the same reasons that victory gardening did -- people are spending more time at home, and gardening keeps their minds off the virus and helps stave off boredom.
Peggy Stellmach, a coworker of mine here at the museum, and her husband Ed have a beautiful flower garden at home and a large vegetable garden out of town. They grow amazing amounts of food, in amazing sizes and colors. I am told they have “heirloom” seeds for some varieties, which they plant each year for the sole purpose of producing more of that seed for the following year.
Peggy warns that if you are considering joining the gardening movement, you order or buy any seeds you need as early as possible, as they sell out as the season approaches.
When I was growing up, my grandfather always had half of his backyard (in a residential neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio) dedicated to his garden. It was marked by the grapevines that ran almost to each side across the yard. If you went around the end of the vines you would enter the magical world of the garden, and if you were visiting you could help grandpa kill slugs, chase away rabbits and harvest vegetables.
I cannot say if Grandpa’s garden started because of the war, but there is a good chance of that. I know he worked out of town and had to have a higher “ration” card for gasoline, and he told other stories of living through war times at home.
Today, maybe we should call these gardens “virus gardens” or “pandemic gardens,” I’m not sure. But I know my family has tried a few of our own versions of growing food this year.
My wife, Becky, has been planting tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and more. She’s created a controlled gardening spot on our deck, using planter boxes, so it’s more manageable for folks like us who have less time at home. She has added a wide variety of herbs in little narrow boxes on the outdoor counter, and uses them to season home-cooked meals. I can tell you, that is delicious!
Across the field from us, our friends and neighbors, the Ronkens, also have a large vegetable garden. Just the other day I received a gift of tomatoes and such. Cherry tomatoes were in there, and my daughter Eden eats them as if they were candy.
Whether you garden because you love it or because you're hungry or because there is a war or a virus, keep on gardening, and enjoy the harvest.
This column is a regular feature of the Tribune's monthly History page. Kevin Mitchell may be reached at the Becker County Museum by calling 847-2938.