Thursday, April 30, 2020

Gardening in the spring of COVID-19

This redbud was in full bloom a week ago

Awhile back I made my first social media post in several years, to the effect that Mike and I were doing fine in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A friend of mine responded that he was imagining Mike and I living off our garden indefinitely. To be sure, our vegetable and small fruit garden is larger than most backyard gardens, but like most people, including me before I started gardening, my friend isn’t fully aware of how much he eats in a year and how much land it takes to produce that amount of food. In a later post I plan to dig more deeply into this topic, based on the 25 plus years of experience I have in growing backyard gardens. In the meantime, I’d like to take a look at the upsurge in gardening that the loss of jobs and social distancing measures associated with COVID-19 has engendered and why I think that it illustrates the biggest benefit of growing backyard gardens.

In the US the COVID-19 isolation measures came during March for most of the population, near the beginning of the growing season or not long before it begins for those of us east of the Rockies. Most US garden seed retailers experience their heaviest seed sales during late winter and early spring, after gardeners have received seed catalogs and decided what to grow and how much seed they will need for their gardens. After many people lost their jobs or began to work at home in response to the various measures enacted to reduce the transmission rate of COVID-19, some of them realized that they had the time to begin a garden and to cook and a need to reduce their grocery expenditures. They promptly began ordering seeds and garden supplies, as did the habitual gardeners who usually order seeds at this time of year. The increased business combined with the need to implement social distancing measures in the buildings in which the seed orders are pulled and prepared for shipping has resulted in delays in processing and sending seed orders. A number of seed retailers have been forced to stop accepting new orders for a period of time while they caught up on pulling and mailing orders they had already received. While this makes things more difficult for erstwhile gardeners who must wait for their seed orders to arrive, I am grateful that my favorite seed retailers will be among the businesses that do well despite the economic disruptions caused by the isolation measures.

Recently some US meat processing plants have been forced to close because of the rapid spread of COVID-19 among the workers in the plants. As a result there has been some discussion of COVID-19 effects on future food supplies in the media. This ties in with the increase in gardening in an interesting way, which I will highlight in this post.

John Jeavons, in his How to Grow More Vegetables book, states that many people grow backyard gardens for what he calls nutrition intervention. In other words, they grow in their gardens mostly vegetables eaten fresh or minimally cooked. However, he feels that more people should focus their backyard gardening efforts on sources of calories (grains, dry beans, and potatoes primarily). If there were a shortage of grains, dry beans, or potatoes in the US his position would have merit. However, to my mind he fails to take into account the effect of automation on the production of these crops, compared to the needs for fruit and vegetable crops to be harvested, and sometimes planted and tended as well, primarily by human labor.

Anyone who lives in the Midwest, as I do, has seen the effect of cheap oil and mechanization on farmland. It is especially noticeable during harvest season, when huge machinery operated by one person drives slowly through the field, ingesting entire corn plants on one end and spitting out clean corn seed on the other. Whatever you may think about eating oil (which is essentially what we are doing in the large-scale agriculture of the US Midwest), social distancing is built into it. These farms don’t need seasonal farmhands to produce a crop. Moreover, the farmers planned their farms and ordered their seeds before COVID-19 caused its havoc. That corn, wheat, rice, and soybean seed, and those seed potatoes and dry bean seed, have been or will be planted. If the livestock that would normally eat Midwestern-grown corn and soybeans is significantly reduced in number due to knock-on effects from COVID-19, humans can eat corn and soybeans too. We may not like it as much as meat (as an omnivore myself, I do not look forward to less meat availability and higher prices), but if that is what there is, we’ll eat it. If you aren’t already eating a substantial amount of these crops, you may want to spend the next few months finding cookbooks on how to make good use of them and starting to experiment with the recipes.

What about vegetables and fruits? While planting and tending of some of these have been automated to a greater or lesser degree, harvest is often still a labor-intensive activity requiring human minds and bodies to accomplish. It is these human minds and bodies that could be in short supply at crucial points in the growing season. I have already read reports that vegetable crops in Florida had to be plowed under because the social isolation measures meant there were not enough workers to harvest the crop, and the institutions that the vegetables were meant for had closed so that even if the crops could be harvested, there were no buyers for them.

At the same time, it is exactly these crops – lettuce and other salad greens and roots; tomatoes and peppers; green beans and sweet corn; zucchini and cucumbers; root vegetables like carrots and onions – that are easiest to grow well in a small backyard garden. Fruits like strawberries and raspberries, if protected from birds and other predators, are also labor intensive, vitamin-rich, and delicious crops that work well in a backyard garden setting. If these were all the crops that I grew, my garden could be about half the size it is now, meaning it would need half the labor that it currently does. And these are exactly the seeds and plants that folks thrown into their backyards are seeking to grow, and exactly the crops that are most likely to be in short supply if social distancing and closed borders reduce the workforce of the large vegetable-growing farms in Florida, California, and other places where this kind of farming is prevalent in the landscape. Thus I take it as a good sign that so many people are taking up backyard vegetable and fruit growing this spring. We need more backyard and small scale vegetable and fruit growing to provide the vitamins and minerals (and the tastes) that are missing in the large-scale grain, dry bean, and potato crops. Combine the calories available from the latter with the nutrition and taste of the former, and that will make for better health and a more resilient food system overall. If my blog helps you to grow a better backyard garden, I will have accomplished one of my goals in writing it.

I hope to have the next post up sometime in May, but May is also the busiest garden month of the year. Sometime in the next couple of months I expect to return to the topic I brought up in the first paragraph. Until then, I wish all of you good health and happiness!