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Victory Gardens Growing Anew

Urban gardeners dig in to beat the recession blues and help neighbors by growing fruits and vegetables.

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— Photo by Matthew Gilson

“I’ve never dug a hole in my life,” Helen Mayberry confessed. “Frankly, I never really had my hand in dirt.”

Yet this spring, the 77-year-old retiree from Galena, Ill., was getting down and dirty. Along with dozens of her neighbors who were working on their hands and knees and with shovels and hoes, Mayberry was planting cucumbers, radishes, carrots, onions and, of course, tomatoes. Each neighbor had paid $25 for a 10-by-10 plot in a community garden taking shape on a donated acre of land, in this community of about 3,300 in the northwestern tip of the state.

As a newcomer to vegetable gardening, Mayberry is hardly alone. Across the country during this time of recession and economic anxiety, Americans of all ages are flocking into their gardens to grow their own food. Community-based gardening projects, similar to Galena’s, are taking shape in urban areas like Milwaukee, Denver and Warren, Mich.
Such “victory gardens” are reminiscent of those planted during World War I and World War II as a way to help put food on the table when resources were scarce.

More Food Gardeners

The numbers are impressive. This year, some 43 million U.S. households will grow vegetables, fruit or herbs—an increase of 7 million, or 19 percent from 2008, according to a study released in March by the National Gardening Association. And an estimated 21 percent of food gardeners will be first-timers like Mayberry.

Many of them cite the chilling effects of the recession, and the fact that gardening can reap financial rewards—a dollar invested in seeds and seedlings can yield more than $8 worth of produce, according to the March study. Others voice concerns over the purity and safety of food and think planting in the backyard can ensure that only wholesome products wind up on the dinner table. Still others see stretching and bending in the garden as a worthy supplement to huffing and puffing in the local gym. And as gasoline prices rise again, garden work is seen as an economical vacation from stress.

Growing to Give to Others

Growing your own food is also seen as a way to help others, especially as donations to local food banks and charities have fallen. Lori Murphy, of Murphy’s Gardens in Galena, said her business in vegetable seeds and starter plants has doubled in the past year, and said her store is now holding regular classes and encouraging people to join the Galena Community Garden.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever done this,” Murphy said. “The coolest part is that a group of master gardeners are going to grow whole rows of food to give to the local food pantry.”

Laurie Mattas, 61, a retired teacher in nearby Elizabeth, Ill., said a major motivation—besides the thrill of growing food—was to give fresh produce to the food bank, which usually can’t provide it. The demand for food from newly impoverished residents “is growing by leaps and bounds,” she said.

First-time planters

Many older gardeners also remember nostalgically how their parents and grandparents planted “victory gardens” during wartime to help put food on the table in tough times, and they figure they can do it, too.

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