Hoosiers' Embrace of ‘Victory Gardens’ Grows During Pandemic

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report, on June 28, 2020

By London Gibson, The Indianapolis Star, June 28, 2020

In the midst of World War II, Americans came together to grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards, forming a network of victory gardens that at one point provided as much as 40% of the country’s vegetables. Today, thousands of Americans are turning to victory gardens again, but for a very different fight — the fight against climate change.

In Indiana and across the country, climate victory gardens are popping up as part of a movement from Green America, an environmentally-focused nonprofit.

Much like the gardens last century were meant to rally communities around a common cause, these victory gardens center on environmentally friendly food production and require gardeners to use regenerative techniques.

“It was an incredible household-level movement that just showed that people’s individual actions could really come together,” said Jes Walton, food campaigns manager for Green America. “We’re trying to make that happen again, but we’re doing it for the climate this time.”

Since Green America’s campaign for victory gardens began in 2018, at least 75 gardens have been registered in Indiana, including many in the Indianapolis area.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept Hoosiers at home this spring, the number of registrations for new gardens has blossomed. Since February 1, Walton said nationwide more than 1,000 new gardens have registered — an increase of roughly 50%.

In Indiana, 55 new victory gardens were registered this spring, more than tripling the number that existed before February. Many joined as part of a collaboration with school garden organization Big Green, but others were simply individuals moved to participate.

Walton thinks more people might be gardening during the pandemic because it’s a good way to get outside while staying safe and maintaining social distancing.

“In this time when people are just kind of stuck at home … gardening is really good for your mental health and physical health and provides actually for education opportunities,” Walton said.

Although not part of a war-time effort to reduce food insecurity, the purpose of Climate victory gardens centers on growing food sustainably and capturing carbon in the soil — a more environmentally friendly practice than purchasing store-bought produce that has often traveled hundreds or thousands of miles.

Green America encourages gardeners to use regenerative methods that sequester carbon in the soil, such as using natural fertilizers, composting and not using pesticides or herbicides. Covering the soil with mulch, cover crops and strategically allowing weeds also promotes soil health.

And that’s an important aspect of gardening, as healthy soil pulls more carbon out of the air, Walton said.

“The idea is, if folks are taking care of their soils, then they’re also pulling carbon out of the air,” Walton said. “It’s kind of a win-win situation.”

Bill Ryerson has promoted soil health for years by composting his waste in his garden, which he says makes the soil nice and rich. And after about 48 years of gardening experience, Ryerson grows squash, beets, carrots, potatoes and more in his northwest Indianapolis victory garden.

Gardening can be a step toward more sustainable food production, he said, especially keeping in mind the future that climate change could bring.

“If we change the environment enough, the inhabitants of the planet will change and that may not include us ... It’s getting awfully, awfully late,” Ryerson said. “We’ve ignored it for way too long, and some of these people need to wake up and smell the ozone, I guess.”

In East Indianapolis, Julia Spangler and Mark Clayton are also motivated by the idea of producing more sustainable food. In their garden, which they just expanded this year into 500 square feet. They now grow 62 different species.

“It’s not a product of industrial agriculture,” Clayton said. “It’s not traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to get to you.”

This year, they hope to grow enough produce to have a surplus and create a community food box in their yard for neighbors to come and take what they need.

“You know where (your food) has been,” Spangler said. “You have the satisfaction of having raised it from a seed or a very small plant ... I just think it’s kind of magical.”

Victory gardens offer more than just environmentally friendly produce, Walton said. They also build community.

Much like community gardens that stock food pantries or church services, excess food grown in backyard gardens is often donated, Walton said. Green America has an online database of victory gardens, so that people can look up and reach out to other gardeners in their area.

Many community gardens might not be in full operation as people have stayed home social distancing, but Walton said she’s noticed people sharing their backyard crops and supporting each other.

“You’ll see a box with a little sign on it that says, ‘Take what you need,’” Walton said. “It can be exciting to show that there’s community momentum, and that you’re part of a bigger thing.”

David Ranalli, a victory gardener in North Indianapolis, describes his garden as more of a magical “food forest.”

Complete with fruit trees, a mushroom growing system and vegetable beds, Ranalli’s layered garden has taken on a life of its own and even has become the focus of an Instagram account and website.

Also a magician, Ranalli said he has benefited from his food forest in a myriad of ways, from seeing wildlife return to his property to coming back into touch with his relationship to plants.

“It was sort of a personal satisfaction in being able to take part in restoring these kinds of natural elements in my life,” he said. “But also, as a magician, I’m always looking for a magical thing, a magical experience.”

Victory gardens began in World War I as a way for communities to supplement produce as food was being diverted overseas to the front lines. Now, there’s an opportunity for people to think about modern food supply and how gardening could help in the fight against climate change, Walton said.

Altogether, she said, using calculations based on regenerative agriculture techniques that are being practiced in the registered gardens around the country, these gardens could absorb 92,100 tons of carbon in the next 10 years — the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off of the road for one year.

But Walton said she believes they can do more: Green America is pushing to double the acreage of gardens currently registered by the end of the year. It’s a lot to ask, she acknowledges.

“A lot of other campaigns and programs are like, ’sign this petition,” Walton said. “And we’re literally asking someone to go outside and have a garden, which is just such different commitment and level of commitment.”

Spangler and Clayton agreed maintaining their victory garden is a time commitment, but it can bring people together to rally around a cause that’s desperate for solutions.

“The climate crisis isn’t going to be solved only through gardening or through regenerative agriculture, so I like the allusion to victory gardens because of the kind of coming together and the community aspect that is suggests,” Spangler said. “But I think it’s important to keep in mind that climate change needs a lot of different solutions.”

Ranalli said he gardens because he believes small decisions should be considered for how they can impact the next generation.

“If we want to create a better world, we have to do it through the lens of, would our kids be proud of the work we did and would they be reaping benefits that we didn’t get to have?” he said. “We can do all of that through the power of plants.”