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Food Insecurity In Pandemic Prompts Growing Interest In Gardening

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DEKALB – COVID-19 has caused disruptions in how families get their food. That’s one reason why more people are growing their own. 

A World War II-era propaganda poster promoting victory gardens.

The concept of a victory garden dates to the Second World War. Food was in high demand, and canned food was rationed for the war effort. Sarah Vogel is an educator at the University of Illinois Extension. She said the federal government encouraged citizens to grow their own food and provided lots of information on how to do so.

“We started to see committees formed within individual neighborhoods,” said Vogel. “We saw tools shared. Food was grown, and a real sense of community and patriotism was encouraged at that time.” 

Vogel said this effort paid off significantly.

“By 1943, American victory gardens generated nearly 40% of all produce in the U.S.,” she said.

COVID-19 has created a growing interest in planting these types of gardens. DeKalb County Community Gardens executive director and founder Dan Kenney explained.

“The COVID impact on various food distribution networks have affected people to the point of where they’re concerned over where their food’s coming from,” Kenney said. “They want to try to have more control over their food system and have more control over where they are able to access their food.” 

But knowledge of gardening is less widespread than it was in the 1940s, especially in urban populations. Vogel said institutions like U of I Extension can change that.

“This should be our opportunity to teach and help each other become more self-reliant.” 

Kenney said this has also been happening at his organization, which among other things, provides education on gardening as well as community growing space.

“Young folks coming out. It may be their first time gardening,” said Kenney. “So they’re very eager to learn how to grow their own food.” 

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

When it comes to starting a garden, both Vogel and Kenney recommend starting with a small patch, and expanding from there. Gardens at ground level are easier to maintain, but Kenney said a raised garden bed has a different advantage.

“Many people don’t realize that weed seeds live in the ground for hundreds of years and when you till the ground and till those weed seeds up, it becomes quite a problem. Whereas if you use a raised garden bed, then you don’t have to till the soil in the same way and you’re able to manage the weeds much easier.” 

As for plants, Kenney said the soil is fertile enough around northern Illinois that one should be able to grow what they want to eat. Vogel added that an ideal plant for beginning gardeners is tomatoes. She said they’re quick to grow and you can potentially get 200 tomatoes from one plant.

A young tomato plant. Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ

“The one downfall is they are perishable,” said Vogel. “So that’s when you start thinking about canning or freezing or making yourself a tomato sauce. But you can make a lot of different food from tomatoes.” 

The one crop Kenney advised against growing is sweet corn.

“We have a lot of places around here that sell sweet corn and we have plenty of it, and raccoons also love sweet corn.”

Kenney said a common mistake first-time gardeners make is overwatering their plants. He recommends the finger test.

“They stick their finger in the soil,” he said. “If the soil sticks to their finger, they don’t need to water. If it doesn’t stick to their finger and falls right off, then they should water a little bit.” 

And when weeds do pop up, Vogel said to address them immediately.

“Everybody hates weeding, but it’s got to be done because if you don’t, they will essentially steal nutrients from the plants that you want to keep healthy and alive.” 

Vogel encourages residents to seek out their local U of I Extension officers if they have questions on gardening. Kenney added that, along with the crop that’s raised, the activity has material and social benefits.

“I encourage people to consider gardening if they haven’t gardened in the past and I think they will be well rewarded for their efforts,” said Kenney. 

And with summer in full swing, the number of people gardening, like the wild plants around the state, is likely to grow even more. 

Chase Cavanaugh is a reporter for WNIJ in DeKalb.

COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. We recommend checking the Coronavirus Information Center for the most recent numbers and guidance.

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