UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. – In the early to mid 1900s, it was common for families to have a garden in their back yard, not just to grow their food, but also to demonstrate their patriotism by putting their surplus crops for war effort.
In the post-war period, interest in these “victory gardens” waned as life returned to normal and food supplies increased. However, home gardening is enjoying a resurgence lately – especially in response to the coronavirus pandemic – and the Penn State Extension’s master gardeners are wasting no time promoting their comeback.
“The trend to grow your own food has increased in recent years, but has intensified during this time of COVID-19,” said Valerie Sesler, coordinator of the master gardener. “There are many reasons people want to grow their food, including wanting high quality products that are as pesticide free as possible. However, lately, people are at home looking for meaningful things to do with their time. “
Sesler explained that Victory Gardens emerged during World War I when farmers were being recruited for military service, which resulted in severe food shortages. These gardens reappeared in World War II for the same reasons. “In 1943, nearly 40 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States were grown in home gardens,” she said.
When home stay orders came in in Pennsylvania in March, master gardeners suspected renewed interest in information about home gardens, especially vegetable gardens, and the Victory Garden Reinvented webinar series was launched.
The 10-session series began in April but can be viewed at any time on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/victory-garden-reinvented-series. The webinars cover the basics of home vegetable gardening, as well as newer growing methods, including no-till, integrated pest management, use of cover crops and row covers, and container horticulture.
Center County’s Jo Merrell, a Penn State Extension Master Gardeners volunteer, supports the renewed interest in Victory Gardens.
In addition to popularly grown vegetables, fruit crops and some vegetable specialties were also highlighted.
“We wanted to ensure that novice and experienced gardeners alike were exposed to high quality, research-based information that they could then use in their own home gardens,” said Sesler.
Facilitators are horticultural extension educators and experienced master gardeners who have a strong background in rearing certain crops.
“Some of the trainers grew up helping their parents in the vegetable garden, while others are involved in commercial and organic farming,” said Sesler.
More than 3,200 people – in 44 states and seven Canadian provinces – have signed up for the series, which is now being translated into Spanish.
Among those winning gardeners is first-time gardener Andrea Russo, a summer resident of Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania who found out about the program at the Clymer Library while searching online for a book her son needed for school.
“I loved the program because the course listing indicated a gradual start from the start,” said Russo, who cares for her cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and cucumber seedlings, and more. “I’ve been enjoying the series so far and clearly the master gardeners are masters.”
Allegheny County’s Fritz Mitnick, while not new to horticulture, decided to sign up for the series to stay busy and learn about new techniques during the quarantine.
“My father was a farmer who grew and sold vegetables, and in high school I ran a merchandise stand on a family farm,” said Mitnick. “At the beginning of the series, I thought I should teach some of the classes.” But I learned something new from every weekly session. “
Mitnick shares her knowledge with friends who are growing food crops for the first time. “I gave them basic advice to get them started and encouraged them to watch the webinar series,” she said. “I enjoyed every episode and I am grateful for the hard work that it took to bring the programs together.”
Sesler said the master gardeners were pleased with the response to the program and optimistic that Victory Gardens will stay here.
“The benefits of gardening are innumerable,” she said. “I think that goes for most gardeners. It’s a way to get the physical exercise you need, and it has a huge impact on mental wellbeing as well. I find it a very cathartic experience to go outside and soak up the sunshine and remove a few weeds. “
There are currently 3,165 volunteer master gardeners in Pennsylvania supporting Penn State Extension’s consumer horticulture education programs. You will help the Extension better serve the home gardening public by answering questions, speaking to groups, maintaining demonstration gardens, helping with pollinator research in Penn State, and participating in many other projects.
For more information, see the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener.