As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, gardening — specifically food gardening — is booming around the country. It’s not due to heightened awareness of climate change, however. It’s thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
First, panic-buying came for the toilet paper. Then it was flour, followed by seeds and now even chickens.
Since the novel coronavirus hit, grocery shopping now involves venturing cautiously out to browse through often picked-over shelves or waiting days for a delivery window or pickup appointment. Government officials continue to assure people that the food supply chain is secure, but nonetheless, people who have never lifted a trowel are digging out their lawns and building raised beds to ensure a backup line of food security.
Experienced gardeners see the need to grow their food more than ever.
“Climate change is coming,” said perfectly named garden designer/author Jessi Bloom, who designs and teaches about sustainable landscapes. “When food and medicine supplies run low, the cool thing is our gardens can provide most of our basic needs. We survived off of the earth for thousands of years. We just got really far away from that.”
Many are taking this opportunity while they shelter in place under Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order (extended through May 4) to create the garden they never made time for before.
Some are creating home-schooling projects for stir-crazy kids out of school for the year. Still others want to grow an extra row or bed of veggies to share with their neighbors or food banks.
The media has christened it a “victory garden” viral revival — some chafe at that term, with its links to nationalism and Japanese American incarceration in World War II, but there’s no question that food gardens are popping up like bluebells right now.
Lexi Ary, who lives outside Tacoma, says she and her fiancé made space to grow food even though they are moving this summer. When her supermarket staples went missing, she leaped from growing herbs into “make-a-meal-for-yourself food,” like planting potatoes from a bag she had in the pantry.
“We want to be able to sustain ourselves. We don’t know what life is going to be in two or three days, much less farther out than that,” Ary said.
The outbreak also prompted Naomi Bradfute to buy raised beds for growing greens and peas for her West Seattle apartment. “I want to have concentrated food production,” she said. “I’m not sure at all the food supply is going to last. I’m worried about the farmers.”
They’re not alone.
“The phone’s been ringing off the hook,” said Laura Matter, horticulturist for The Garden Hotline, an information service run by Tilth Alliance. “A lot of people are looking for ways to be self-sufficient, and I think they have time to focus on it now.”
Many callers are brand-new to gardening, often looking to use what they have because they can’t find seeds or plants. One person asked if you could plant frozen peas. (Unfortunately, that’s a no.)
Online information groups are burgeoning too. The Seattle Backyard Gardening Facebook group grew by 1,447 members in March, according to administrator Suzy Knutson.
“It’s been ‘all hands on deck’ here just to get the orders out,” said Tom Johns, who has co-owned Oregon-based Territorial Seed Company, the Northwest’s largest mail-order firm, for more than 30 years. Compared to previous recessions and the Y2K scare spikes, he said “this one is the most extreme for us in a lot of ways. … It’s more real and scarier to people.”
On April 8, for the first time, Territorial shut down all new orders, hoping to reopen when orders are caught up. “This goes against everything in my being, but we have to keep people safe,” Johns said, explaining that he’s balancing the need to help his employees maintain social distancing measures with filling orders as efficiently as possible. “There’s only so many shifts we can have to fill out the orders.”
Sales were 30-40% higher than a typical spring, Johns said. There is now a 10-day shipping turnaround, compared to its typical two-day max.
In March, Swansons Nursery had to put in emergency orders for vegetable and herb plants and “we’re taking as much as we could get,” said Aimée Damman, Swansons Nursery’s director of marketing and communications. “It’s been a strange and rapidly evolving spring.”
Die-hards are venturing into urban farming, starting with chickens, leading to unheard-of shortages at feed stores throughout the area.
“I would say we’re up 50-100% compared to a normal year,” said Elizabeth O’Connell, brand ambassador of Snohomish Co-Op, which operates Snohomish and Monroe Co-op feed stores. Both stores are selling out weekly. She estimates that based on the sales of chick supplies (kits including lights, tanks and feed are “flying out the door”), 25-40% of the uptick has come from new chicken-keepers.
David Frank, in Wedgwood, is working on converting an old playset into a chicken coop. “I am so, so grateful to have [gardening]. It’s therapeutic, it gets me into the sun, I’m able to do something creative outside of these four walls,” he said.
Pacing seasonal rhythms by planting in spring grants people a sense of normalcy in these unpredictable days, said Gillian Matthews, owner of Ravenna Gardens nursery.
Yet despite the anxiety in the air, there are signs of hope.
For Rebecca Kraus and husband Robert van Weezendonk of Burien, the crisis has heightened the urgency of growing food for themselves and others. Having converted their backyard to an edible oasis complete with chicken coop and cisterns, this year they fenced their front yard and dug out their lawn to add six new beds for Walla Walla sweet onions, beets, pumpkins and carrots. They are comparing notes with their neighbors to trade and share their surplus.
They’ve also planted sunflowers and lavender to attract bees and other pollinators, and to boost their crops’ productivity.
Pollinators are crucial for the creation of sustainable landscapes — especially with edible plants. Not only will you get more flowers and fruit, but you’ll increase the biodiversity of species in your area.
“We are creating ecosystems,” said Bloom. “Growing food is just one of many components — pollinators are at the top of the list, followed by pest predators who manage populations of pests.”
The Common Acre, a nonprofit organization, has even helped Seattle City Light plant a pollinator “Green Line” in Upper Rainier Beach’s Duwamish Corridor and the “Flight Path” at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has increased bee populations by 70%.
“We’re interested in being good stewards and using the land productively,” said Kraus. “We’re excited to rely less on services and having the ability to grow our own.”
Nicole DeKay, a graduate student in Greenwood, reclaimed her town-house alleyway with her husband Andrew as a “charity garden” of tomatoes and peas for her local food bank. These crops are planted in repurposed plastic tubs, and DeKay has even created a jury-rigged aquaponic system in which lettuce, scallions and goldfish live and feed each other symbiotically under a greenhouse kit in her yard.
Even those who don’t have their own gardens are joining in the frenzy. Folks are turning out earlier and in greater numbers to volunteer for work parties at the “Giving Garden” for seniors and at-risk youth at UpGarden P-Patch in Queen Anne, said Michelle Bartell, who co-leads the Giving Garden program.
Gardening conveys many benefits — from physical exercise and boosting your immune system to growing fresher, more nutritious food and getting closer to nature and your community — but the one longtime gardeners echo most frequently is, as Ravenna Gardens’ Matthews says: “It’s just good for your soul.”
And soul-soothing, with a side of homegrown veggies, is something we all need now — which may help us realize every day is Earth Day.
Several experts expressed concern that seed shortages will worsen into next year, saying it’s better to jump in and learn by doing than to wait for it to become perfect.
Some specific tips:
On plant choices:
- “Good first plants to try are beans, peas, lettuce and radishes — these germinate fast and grow easily.” — Laura Matter, horticulturist, Tilth Alliance Garden Hotline
- “Greens, like kale, beets and bok choy, are a great way to get micronutrients — you can just snip what you need to enhance the nutrient value of a meal, and can get two or three years out of some, like kale and tree collards.” — Sally Anne Sadler, designer, Shooting Star Gardens, blogger on edible gardens for beginners
- “Including herbs, arugula and kale in infinite variety lets you change up flavors in your cooking, potatoes offer caloric density, and the one crop everyone should grow is a ‘Sungold’ cherry tomato — it’s sweet and ripens reliably in our cool summers. Plant succession sowings, like lettuce every three weeks, and radishes every week to keep harvesting all season.” — Bainbridge Island-based designer Grace Hensley
- If you don’t have a garden ready, consider growing in straw bales (available at feed stores) or look into hügelkultur — planting into piled organic material that feeds the soil.
- Install a water system because it supports everything else. Consider rain collection with cisterns or rain barrels, especially if you pay for water by the gallon.
- A lot of plants people consider to be weeds (such as buttercup, dandelions and lemon balm) are nutritious, medicinal or beneficial for our ecosystems — and easier to grow than many vegetables.
- “Look for ‘open-pollinated’ seeds which can be saved and planted next year, versus F1 hybrids.” — Jessi Bloom, of NW Bloom Ecological Landscapes
- The Garden Hotline is a free phone information service run by Tilth Alliance, staffed by horticulturalists; 206-633-0224, Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
- The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide is an information booklet published by Tilth Alliance.
- Swansons Nursery has many online growing guides, and will help design your garden on a custom Pinterest page — post your pictures on its social media with the tag #heyswansons.
- “Chickens are incredibly interesting and friendly, and there’s nothing like a fresh egg from your flock.” Do your reading before taking on the care of chickens, research the breeds, understand the amount of space you’ll need, your municipal regulations and the structure to protect them from predators (dogs are No. 1, but coyotes, raccoons, crows and even rats can attack them). — Elizabeth O’Connell, Snohomish Co-op
- The city of Seattle allows residents to house up to eight chickens; Bellevue six, and in unincorporated King County, it varies with the size of your lot.
- For some books on chickens, read “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens” by Gail Damerow or “Free-Range Chicken Gardens” by Jessi Bloom.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.