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Victory Garden: An idea from tough times returns

A Victory Garden poster circa 1943, the height
of the WWII garden popularity. The woman
of the family
is gardening in her stockings! The seam line up the back
of her leg is the giveaway. (Image courtesy
the National Archives)
Interest rises in growing food while everyone is sheltering at home

Sacramento is routinely a hotbed of gardening in March, with nurseries packed and long lines of folks buying fertilizer and soil amendment. But even in this gardening-mad region, the effect of the coronavirus shelter-at-home orders seems to be boosting interest in putting in gardens, especial vegetable and herb gardens.

I haven't been out in the world since March 16, and last bought soil amendment on March 11, but like everyone else I spend a lot of time online. And the evidence is there. The nurseries -- deemed essential since they sell supplies for growing food -- are slammed with business.

Social-distancing protocols haven't deterred garden shoppers. The
Plant Foundry in the Triangle District on Wednesday got a new shipment of tomato and pepper transplants, but has posted a two-per-customer limit. And the plants aren't even out on the tables; customers have to request the varieties they want. (The link is to their Facebook page, which has current updates.)

Green Acres has put much of its inventory online, and will bring your order to your car and even load it for you in one of their five stores' parking lots. Fair Oaks Boulevard Nursery is taking email orders for curbside pickup. Emigh Hardware is taking phone orders; Talini's in East Sac is, too, during limited hours, and with appointments for pick-ups. And Big Oak Nursery in Elk Grove is open; call for information on delivery or pick-up.

Peaceful Valley in Grass Valley long has offered online orders,  but with staffing issues is completely shut down, including the website for the time being.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, many folks, on their own pages or as new followers of the Sacramento Gardening Group, are saying "I want to plant a vegetable garden -- how do I do it?"

My answer: "How much time do you have?" As in, it's an unlimited topic.

But also, how much time do you have, not just this spring, but this summer, this fall? A garden takes time, especially if you're starting with seeds. Carrots take up to 5 months, and don't grow well in clay soul. Lettuce is quicker but often can't handle our late-spring temperatures.

"Every Garden a Munition Plant" says this poster
from 1918. (Image courtesy National Archives)
Historical perspective is why I note this. The New York Times this week has a report on the new interest in growing food all across the country. The story points out that patriotic gardening first became an idea during World War I (see the poster here from 1918), continued during the Spanish flu epidemic, and then got another boost during the Depression and early World War II.

At one point, American home, school and community gardens produced about 40 percent of the nation's fresh fruits and vegetables.

It didn't last, which would be no surprise to any experienced gardener. Here's how the Times story explains it:

But ask any farmer — gardening is hard work, growth is slow and yields can be unpredictable.

In 1943, The Times ran a story on the disappointments and failures of the millions of first-time gardeners who had thrown themselves into planting gardens without much experience, and were now hesitant to invest in insecticides or soil tests.

“The First Year Is the Hardest,” the headline assured readers, but it wasn’t assuring enough. A year later, The Times reported that “no amount of warning will make people plant their Victory gardens again this year unless they are convinced that they are really needed.”

The craze slowed down. Millions of gardens were abandoned.

I'd hate to see all this new gardening enthusiasm melt away in the first Sacramento heat wave. Growing your own food is satisfying -- I cherish the canned tomatoes and homemade sauce in my pantry now -- but it's work.

If you talk to anyone who's jumping into vegetable gardening for the first time, caution them to take it slow, to research as much as possible, and to understand that even in Sacramento we can't grow everything all at once. Thanks, and good luck to all the newbies.


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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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