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Responding to the virus with pitchfork and shovel, gardeners dig in

Responding to the virus with pitchfork and shovel, gardeners dig in


Forced to reckon with an economy falling to pieces amid widespread illness and death, some people are finding solace in ripping out their grass.

“It was maybe two weeks ago,” recalled Katie Jones, who stripped part of her Botetourt County backyard. “I remember it was nice out.”

She removed almost every blade for 3 feet along 50 feet of fence for a garden to help feed her family of five. “I’m sticking with things I usually buy anyway, like tomatoes and squash,” said Jones, 41, working from home in her job as an administrator.

Home and community gardening fights the pandemic with action. Just as Americans planted so-called Victory Gardens during World Wars I and II to expand the domestic food supply, today’s virus shut-ins have responded in part by preparing to grow food for themselves. It’s done to have something to eat in case stores run out, to reduce trips to the store and to save money. Some people simply wish to put extra time to good use. The emergency has stoked interest not only in new gardens, but also in bigger plots among those who had grown vegetables in the past.

Government-imposed restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 coincided with a stretch of nice weather in the Roanoke-Blacksburg region, possibly accelerating the urge to plant. On the day Gov. Ralph Northam closed the schools, March 13, the temperature in Roanoke peaked 15 degrees above average at 72 degrees. Blacksburg peaked 13 degrees above average at 65.

There’s ample gardening direction from cooperative extension experts, who work by phone and email, and plenty of lay advice on social media.

Barbara Leach, a horticulture technician with Virginia Cooperative Extension in Roanoke, recommended container or ground gardening to distract from stress-inducing news reports. “Get something rather than nothing,” she said.

Retailers report dramatic sales in supplies such as plants, bagged goods and seed.

“My rough guess is the plant business is up around 25% or so,” said Walter Vance, president of Northwest Ace, a Roanoke-based home improvement chain.

Some people say it’s a good time to stop running out to the grocery store for every need.

“We need to be focusing on how we as individuals can sustain ourselves without a dependence on corporate supply chains,” said Catie Grayson, a junior studying environmental policy and planning and landscape architecture at Virginia Tech. “I think being able to harvest at least a small variety of veggies will be a good start.”

Grayson lives in an apartment, but that hasn’t stopped her from taking up food production. She rented a plot from the Blacksburg Community Gardens program operated by Live, Work, Eat, Gather Inc. It’s about 225 square feet off Wilson Street at the site of the nonprofit’s new Wong Park location.

Blake Seydel rented at Wong Park, too, and for a similar reason.

“I don’t want to be completely reliant on grocery stores for the health and well-being of myself and those I care about. These corporations like Kroger and Food Lion have been around ever since I have been alive. But that doesn’t mean they will be around forever. If you have the time and space to grow food for yourself, I say do it,” said the Tech junior, who is studying neuroscience.

At its core, gardening reconnects people with the earth and soil, said Jenny Schwanke, the community gardens coordinator, quoting one of her plot holders. “I know we can’t expect to have home gardens/community gardens change the world, but I do think it is a very positive step for our communities — growing our own and supporting our local farmers both move us towards a more secure and robust local food system,” she said.

It doesn’t take all that much space, either. Tiffany Lee and her fiance, Brian Pomerville, tend 10 chickens, including eight laying hens, and a large garden with more than six kinds of vegetables on part of a residential lot in Roanoke measuring about a sixth of an acre. There was room for more; two new beds await attention, one of which will be committed to beans for drying. The idea is to increase the portion of the harvest that can be stored.

“We’ve stepped up this year more than we had planned to. Some of it because of the coronavirus situation and possible food shortages, and some of it is I’m at home more and I have more time to be out playing in the garden,” said Lee, a copy editor and teacher now working from home.

Heather Hamlin O’Bryan of Roanoke started a Facebook group, Roanoke Victory Gardeners, to crowdsource know-how for the benefit of those getting started. “I grew up tending gardens with my family in the country,” she said. “It was a part of life. I feel this essential skill has been dropped through generations due to convenience.”

The group — still not a month old — had 176 members as of Thursday.

Kingna Veinote queried the Facebook group and found a company to deliver dirt. She also ordered a new raised planter, bringing the collection of containers and planters behind her house to nearly a dozen. Her planting list is long.

“The main benefit is not having my husband go to the grocery store as much,” she said. And, “with my kids, it’s like science.” She and her kids had a learning experience the other day when she lifted a sprouted cucumber seed and somebody smelled the rootling. Yep, it smelled like cucumber.

Still others garden for not just the practical reasons but also for a positive emotional charge.

Day-to-day contact with the garden she and her housemates tend “makes me feel secure,” said Katie Trozzo of Roanoke, who coordinates the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition and is an associate at the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation at Virginia Tech.

“And I think it’s helped with my anxiety and my mental health and my ability to know that instead of stockpiling and hurting other people to get what I need, that I can create more abundance. If we all do that in our community, it gives me hope that we can move through this crisis together while taking care of each other.”

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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