WASHINGTON – Victory gardens are back, but they aren’t the version of your grandfather’s time, when growing food in your backyard was a sign of sacrifice and tribute to the war effort against the Nazis.
Now, Marylanders are looking to their backyards to bolster their bottom line against the recession and capitalize on the healthy, local food trend.
Interest in backyard gardens is “on the rise from what I can tell,” said Dale Johnson, of Keedysville, farm management specialist for the University of Maryland. “It makes sense.”
The recession, which started in December 2007, has spawned citizen cost-cutting and delaying unnecessary purchases. Food prices have risen 4.8 percent each year since 2007 and nearly 3 million American workers have lost their jobs since the recession began.
“We received 90 calls today,” said Lewis Shell, a certified professional horticulturist, of the unusual call volume on Thursday to the Maryland Cooperative Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center hotline. “People are asking how to start their own gardens.”
The trend is so hot, even the White House is doing it, with first lady Michelle Obama on Friday breaking ground on the first kitchen garden there since Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II victory garden. Obama told the grade-schoolers at the groundbreaking that whole point of the garden was to make sure her family had access to fresh vegetables and fruits.
“My girls like vegetables more if they taste good,” Obama said, according to pool reports. Later she added: “Especially if they’re involved in planting it and picking it, they were willing to give it a try.”
Consumers’ interest in growing their own food seems to be bigger than ever.
“We’ve had twice as many questions about fruits and vegetables this year,” said Jon Traunfeld, extension specialist.
Because of the recession, people want access to better food and say, ‘Hey, what can I grow myself?’ Traunfeld said. “But it will be hard work, and people can save money.”
In response to rising interest, the information center launched the statewide “Grow It Eat It” gardening program on Mar. 9 to help new gardeners and is offering basic gardening classes taught by the master gardeners themselves.
Callers “want to know what things will grow well in Maryland” said Traunfeld, who said the center has received more than 150 e-mails from residents who want to start gardening in January and February.
“We want people to start small and grow the things they eat,” said Traunfeld, who suggests beginners start out with vegetables and herbs.
“If everyone in Maryland went out and planted a small garden, imagine all the produce we would be producing?” Johnson said. “It takes a little bit more energy than watching the plasma screen (television) and the same amount of time.”
Jennifer Dostal, of Silver Spring, is hoping that growing her own food will save time and reduce the cost of buying fresh.
“My family has always had a garden . . . but this is my first year trying to garden on my own.” said Dostal, who is renting a plot in the Rockville community garden.
Growing up, her father grew strawberries, kohlrabi (German turnips) and Lincoln peas, which Dostal said are hard to find in Maryland.
“I like bi-colored corn,” said Dostal, IT specialist at the National Center for Health Statistics with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You can’t get it here. Everybody in Maryland likes silver queen (all-white sweet corn).”
Dostal, 32, who usually scours farmer’s markets and pick-your-own-places for her produce, is going to grow her favorites this season.
The self-proclaimed picky eater is an avid preserver and buys fresh produce in large quantities.
Dostal’s kitchen and “pantry,” a closet in an extra bedroom, are stocked with her homemade, canned apple sauce, pickled beets, green beans, carrots, peaches, pears and jams.
In addition to canning, she freezes corn, peas — Lincoln peas, to be precise — broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, all of which she’s planning to grow in her 500-square-foot plot in Rockville.
“I do it as I hobby,” said Dostal whose canned delights can last up to two years on the shelf, but she usually tries to eat them within a year. “I get to adjust things for the way I want.”
“Some people go kayaking, some people go on photo safaris — I can (food),” Dostal said with a laugh.
Open registration for the Rockville garden plots began on Mar. 4 and slots were filled two days later, according to Nanette Belice, Civic Center secretary, Rockville City Garden Plots at Woottons Mill Park. There are still five people on the waiting list.
“They had a number of empty spaces last year,” said veteran gardener John McKee, Rockville, who was surprised at how quickly the plots filled this year.
In his four plots, McKee, 75, grows tomatoes, flowers, pumpkins and other squash, and potatoes.
“It’s like painting — you plan ahead, you visualize and if it all goes right it comes together like a painting,” McKee said of gardening.
McKee, who grew up during World War II, took care of the family victory garden along with his parents.
During the war, the government rationed foods to assure supplies to soldiers overseas and labor shortages made it difficult to harvest produce for grocery stores. The government then encouraged citizens to plant “victory gardens” and to provide their own food.
McKee’s father maintained the vegetables and McKee often helped his mother tend their flowers. (One of his first words was ‘ageratum,’ a small bluish-purple flower.)
But since then: “It’s been a good hobby,” said McKee, who’s been gardening at the Rockville Community Garden Center almost consistently for more than 20 years.
For McKee, it’s not a matter of economics, despite the current trend.
“I don’t see it as saving (money), it’s the quality,” McKee said of growing his own food.
When you have a homegrown tomato you know it, McKee said. There is nothing like going outside on a hot day, he said, picking up a tomato fresh off the vine, rubbing it on your sleeve and biting into it.