Fruit of Their Labor: Contemporary Victory Gardens and Urban Gardens During COVID

Cultivating Healing Through Urban Gardening Activism

Planting rosemary, mint, cilantro, and an array of other herbs, has been a practice of healing for my father. During COVID, my family’s garden became his refuge. In lieu of work and mourning the many lives lost to the pandemic and institutional racism, he cultivated joy by investing in our garden. Although, we are not growing large scale produce, we have some things in the backyard that we do not have to get from the grocery store and my father’s racial healing practice creates a beautiful oasis in our yard.

One of the other people who follows in this practice is the multidisciplinary artist and community activist: Vanessa German. During COVID, she shares videos on Facebook and Instagram of poetry blended with words of encouragement, gardening, and adding hashtags of Black Lives Matter. In her artist practice and planting in Homewood, she ritually heals the land through word and deed.

In the wake of COVID-19 urban gardeners sow seeds of  joy, healing, victory, and hope. COVID-19 indicated, globally, the weaknesses in supply chain management systems. One of these systems most impacted is the food system. For instance, in every panic there is a grocery store clean-out in one or more  sections (this time oddly enough, it is toilet paper and cleaning products). Urban gardeners, community growers, and personal green thumb enactors are looking to the land to support them in this time of crisis. For instance, by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities and urban agriculture remedies the food demand by “potentially producing as much as 180 million tonnes of food a year - or about 10% of the global output of pulses and vegetables.”

In this article we will provide for you these things:

  • History of Victory Gardens Being Reclaimed During COVID
  • Gardening Activism and Healing Through Land Cultivation
  • How to Build Your Own Urban Garden
Japanese Americans gardening during World War II.
Reclaiming Victory Gardens has been the mission of Green America. With its undoubtedly patriotic and controversial war history, it is important to reuse this symbol today in the battle against COVID. Image courtesy of Green America.

History of Victory Gardens

The Past and Present Relevance of Supporting the War Effort

During World War II, one of the ways that Americans supported the war effort was by using idle land to create Victory Gardens. These gardens were meant to supplement food insecurity that originated from the planters and farmers that were forced to serve on the battlefield. Propaganda posters exposed to “sow the seeds of victory” by planting gardens to make them self sufficient. Even children participated in land cultivation and the government started calling them “soldiers of the soil.” These sentiments were a call to grassroots collective action.

The reclaiming of the Victory Garden is important because, during this call to action, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, racism permeated the soil for Black people wanting a Double Victory, and indigenous people were continually robbed of their land and resources. This is especially relevant because of the spreading of the pandemic in 2020 and the cracks in the institution that indicate racial inequality and hateful rhetoric. During COVID, we are going to do Victory Gardens the right way, by planting seeds of community healing for coronavirus-induced trauma, the anti-Asian sentiment, police brutality and violence against bodies, the dissolvement of indigenous lands under the Trump administration, and honoring the restless gardeners that care about their community. 

Sankofa Village Garden in Homewood in Pittsburgh.
Sankofa Village Community Garden is continuing the work to fight food insecurity in Homewood despite the spread of the coronavirus. Image courtesy of The Incline.

Gardening as a Patriotic, Healing, and Self-Sufficient Practice

Signifying the Victory Gardens During COVID

The rallying cry for people in this work, during COVID has been: “If all the stores close, we need food.” With this in mind, many community gardens and personal gardens are stepping up to the plate. In the Black historic neighborhood of Weeksville in Brooklyn, Tehuti Ma’at Community Garden, continues its essential work. It opened in April and propelled itself into working through a pandemic. This community garden and others were thought of and conceived for such a time as this. Workers of Tehuti Ma’at and other gardens in the area, add social distancing enforcement to their job descriptions, take extra safety precautions, and continue to grow and harvest plants.

Specifically, community gardens provide a solution to the lack of access to grocery stores in many ways. During COVID, going to the grocery store has become a high-risk mission. Grocery stores have become crowded due to panic, elderly people may not be able to shop for themselves, people are stocking up on items, and some communities do not even have grocery stores. Urban agriculture rethinks this whole system by providing more individualized care, fresh farm-to-table ingredients that are healthy and sure to boost the immune system, and it gives coverage to communities that are looking for answers to food insecurity.

Many urban farmers, during this time are finding ways to prevail in the midst of COVID. According to Shelly Danko+Day, Urban Agriculture and Food Policy Planner within the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning Sustainability + Resilience Division, there have been many urban gardens and farms that are thriving during this time. For example, she talked about negotiating the communications of 25 private farmer’s market managers to allow the farmer’s markets to open on time. 

Furthermore, the city of Pittsburgh continues to pivot at this time regarding urban farming because they are seeking ways to provide food sovereignty to various neighborhoods. Pittsburgh’s Adopt-a-Lot program saw an upsurge in purchasing chickens to produce eggs because eggs are expensive during COVID, the city council remains in a dialogue about creating an urban farm out of a park that provides free food for all, and residents are calling for ways to have food without leaving their neighborhoods to go to the grocery store. COVID caused this rallying cry to be an even closer reality with the limitations of public transportation and making people stay in their homes. 

Moreover in the face of these concerns, brave farmers bear the outside while wearing masks, staying an arm’s length and a shovel away from each other, refraining from sharing tools, using sanitizer, and continuing their essential work in the city. Danko+Day mentions that the spring is always a large planting season and it was crucial that the city and farmers came up with a plan to continue to grow during the COVID season.

At Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus, students and faculty members work to continue this critical work during COVID. While it is not in the city of Pittsburgh, but not far away in the nearby town of Gibsonia, the agroecology garden provides a source of food for the community and a place for education. For instance, Grace Brennan, a second-year Sustainability: Natural Resources major and Botany minor, is working with Dr. Christopher Murakami, agroecology and food studies professor, on building new garden beds and maintaining others that are used as a community food source. Brennan misses the community aspect of gardening but COVID validates her work because she says, “A lot of stuff has changed but also COVID and the food insecurity of this pandemic has definitely reminded me of why I am so passionate about gardening and food production in the communities I am a part of--we’re definitely adapting.” 

Tehuti Ma’at Community Garden in Brooklyn
Tehuti Ma’at Community Garden has made a difference in staying open through the pandemic to provide the community that it serves food. As we reimagine what events, business, and lifestyles may look like in the future, we look to the community gardens that are serving at a poignant time. Image courtesy of New York Times.

Grounding Yourself in a New Practice

Some Tips on Starting Your Own Urban Garden

Lot farming is a lengthy process involving government paperwork, soil and a sunny location, pest management specific to urban agriculture including raccoons, squirrels, and dealing with fungus and mold. While this may or may not be for you, there are many ways for you to get involved on the homefront. One of these ways is starting a small garden at your house, supporting Community Support Agriculture (CSA), and creating “Soil Mills,” as Danko+Day calls it. Soil Mills are the process of making new soil through composting. Even this practice can add to the food landscape in America.

Plus, you can get creative with it. If you want to spruce up your garden with different planters or garden accents, check out Plow & Hearth! This home and gardening company has every gardening gadget and accessory under the sun. Their products will surely elevate your garden to the next level.

Gardening is not rocket science. It is important to first find an available plot of land or pots, have available soil, and begin planting seeds in accordance to the season that you are in. This practice is beneficial because you are becoming more biointropective, which is needed in the world today due to the volume of mass pollution and to keep up the momentum of reducing pollution on account of COVID, you are making food resources available for yourself and others, and you are sowing seeds of victory by planting your garden.

Hero image courtesy of the author.

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Chenoa Baker

Chenoa Baker, a writer, bookworm, and museum professional, is working to obtain her bachelors in Cultural Studies at Chatham University.
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