Victory Gardening in a Time of COVID (and beyond)

The nationwide shortage of vegetable seeds suggests that the COVID-19 crisis has stimulated a renewed interest in home and community gardening of edibles, particularly vegetables and herbs, similar in certain ways to Victory Gardens during the First and Second World Wars

Here in Vermont, the widespread COVID-induced enthusiasm for home gardening (as well as bread baking) may remind some of us of when we first came to Vermont in the 1970s in search of a simpler and more self-sustainable way of life, closer to nature and to the sources of the food we eat. Over time, a few of us expanded our home vegetable gardens and became market farmers; many more of us cut back or gave up our home gardens and began buying local produce at farmers markets and food co-ops. However, many Vermonters cannot afford the higher prices of most local produce, while for others even supermarket groceries are a stretch of limited budgets and food insecurity has been a fact of life for some time. 

During this COVID-19 crisis, many more of us may be feeling the pinch of food insecurity, particularly those who are unable to get out to grocery stores because we are in higher-risk categories. Moreover, we are beginning to read and hear about the possibility of major disruptions in the food supply chain that could lead to serious fresh food shortages in grocery stores next winter, especially fruits and vegetables grown in Latin America, California, and Florida, as well as affordable meat, most of which comes to us through large meat-packing operations that may have difficulty employing noncitizens. 

What can we all do to address these food supply challenges—currently and possibly even more extremely next winter?

If you have a home garden or access to community gardens, consider these suggestions:
  • Donate your extra bounty to fresh food pantries and/or to organizations that provide meals at “soup kitchens” or through meals-on-wheels programs for people who are isolated at home. (For information on where and how to best donate freshly grown food, contact: ampleharvest.org, the Vermont Foodbank, Just Basics, Community Harvest, and local food pantries wherever you live.)
  • Start right now, planting vegetables that can survive hard frosts (e.g., peas, radishes of all kinds, many types of salad greens, onions, etc) and beginning preparation to plant other cold-hardy vegetables (e.g., cabbages, beans, most herbs, carrots) once hard frosts have passed, which in most of Central Vermont should have been overnight April 27/28. 
  • Plan your garden so you can do succession planting that will continue to produce fast-maturing crops like spinach, lettuce, mustard greens, arugula, etc. throughout the summer and into the fall.
  • Use some simple intensive gardening techniques to significantly increase the yield from your existing garden area, e.g., companion planting; succession planting; crop rotation; wide rows/narrow beds; vertical growing; etc.
  • Expand the area of your garden to grow more, especially storage crops that can be harvested in the late fall and that will keep through much of the winter, e.g., carrots and winter squash, which can be grown in “hills” you can build in any sunny area of your property (as long as you protect it from critters with something like chicken wire). 
  • Consider converting some of your property to permaculture, especially fruit trees, bushes, and canes that can be grown in your area; most of this will take a year or more to provide much, if any, fruit, but some berries (e.g., black currants, which are very high in Vitamin C) will produce in their first season. (Providers of perennial fruit and vegetable (e.g., asparagus) suitable for Central Vermont include: East Hill Tree Farm, Elmore Roots Nursery
  • Encourage neighbors to convert some or all of their sunny lawns into edible gardens (and thereby reduce the expense and climate destruction of mowing and fertilizing grass). Initially, they might try creating a few “hills” to grow summer and winter squashes as well as cucumbers and melons. You may need to give them a hand and lots of advice on how to do this, especially on fencing out deer and other critters.
  • Invite friends who may not currently have access to an edible garden to share yours; this may be an opportunity also to share your knowledge and experience. 
  • If you have any other suggestions for people who have their own garden or have access to a community garden, please email phkelman@gmail.com.

Are you among the new crop (pun intended) of Victory Gardeners who seem to be emerging?

If so, please consider some observations from those of us who have been gardening for years. It’s a lot of work and it’s easy to become frustrated when things don’t grow as we expect them to; when the weather just doesn’t cooperate; when pests and other wild creatures eat more of our garden than we do; when the reality of Vermont’s short growing season clashes with the succession-planting instructions on the seed packets; when the clay in much of our soil makes no-till garden preparation an exhausting, blister-producing chore. And then there’s that enticing internet gardening article that turns out to have been written by someone whose advice is based entirely on their gardening experience in California. And the fruit trees and berry bushes we bought from a Champlain Valley nursery that  don’t seem to be thriving on our Central Vermont hilltops. Oh yeah, and what do we do with all that zucchini?

Well, luckily for those of you who may be new to gardening, or at least doing so in Central Vermont (or who might want a review), we have an enormous number of experienced home gardeners and some great organizations in the state to help you get started—and to consult with when you encounter difficulties.

One more warning: it’s getting pretty late to start a brand-new garden, so you might want to consider joining an existing community garden or asking a friend or neighbor if you could help them with theirs and share some of the bounty. BTW, this would be a great way to learn about some of the vagaries of Vermont vegetable gardening. (See below for details on where you might find community gardening opportunities in our area.)

Meanwhile, on this page of the Aging Intentionally eNewsletter, we will be posting gardening resources (with links) at least through the fall. So bookmark this page and come back to it as often as you need. And when you learn of some new Vermont gardening resource, drop us an email so we can share it.

For starters, we highly recommend:

Charlie Nardozzi’s FREE Vegetable Victory Garden Webinar on YouTube 
A basic vegetable gardening webinar for new or novice vegetable home gardeners. Based in Vermont, Charlie talks about where and how to grow veggies, the easiest veggies to grow, soil tips, and solutions for garden problems.

A Blog written by Henry Homeyer, a life-long organic gardener who has lived and gardened in Cornish Flat, NH since 1970, and writes a weekly gardening column that appears in 12 newspapers around New England.  

Square Foot Gardening
This approach to home vegetable gardening was developed by Mel Bartholomew in the mid-1980s and has evolved over the years to become one of the most widely followed methods for beginning home vegetable gardeners. There are now many variations and many books on this method and even a Square Foot Gardening Foundation. Most of the current versions of square foot gardening call for building a 4’x4’ raised bed and using a particular soil-mix at a depth of just 6 inches; this approach is ideal for gardeners whose native soil is problematic or who may want to garden in an area that has little or no soil (e.g., a sunny driveway, school playground, or parking lot). However, if you have reasonably good soil in a sunny spot that is at least 4’x4’ , the rest of the method still applies and is very simple to understand and follow.


Recommended articles:

A veteran urban farmer reveals how to grow food anywhere


Community Gardens
Want to start a new community garden?
Warning: This is even harder than starting your own garden; vegetables are easier to collaborate with than are people. :)


Vermont Community Garden Network: vcgn.org
This organization and its website are a tremendous resource not just for community gardeners but for anyone gardening in Vermont.

We would particularly draw your attention to VCGN’s
COVID-19 Guidelines & Resources for Safe Community Gardening: A very useful guide to gardening in these difficult times, especially if one is sharing a garden with others

This weekly chat is generally held Thursdays at 11AM; the next scheduled chat will be April 30

Community Teaching Garden Blog: New issues to come; meanwhile check out 8 years of monthly postings in their archives



VCGN suggests:
Before you launch into planning a community garden, first ask yourself a few questions to help determine if a new garden site or group is what’s actually needed.
  • Is there another community or school garden in your area already serving the people you’re hoping to reach? If so, is there a way you could support or further their goals?
  • Is there a garden group or other group in your area open to expanding its reach? If so, could you work with an existing group to create a new garden site?
  • Is a community or school garden something that will meet the needs and desires of your community? Is there another project that would better suit your goals?
A good place to start your community garden exploration would be to learn about existing community gardens in our area, which you can read about on their websites or contact by phone or email to see if they would welcome a site visit now or after the COVID-19 crisis has subsided.

Types of Community Gardens
  • Plot-Based: divided up into plots of land for community members to grow and harvest their own crops. There is often a small cost associated.
  • Communal: In these gardens, community members work together to grow and harvest the produce. Vegetables and fruit are shared among garden members.
  • Donation: Produce grown and harvested in these gardens is donated to local food shelves and community kitchens. These are typically communally tended, rather than plot-based.
  • Educational: These gardens have an educational focus and are often associated with schools or other educational institutions.
  • Restricted: These gardens are open only to a selected group, such as residents in a building, employees at a workplace, or members of a group or club.
  • Combination: Most gardens are combinations of two or more of the above types.

Community Gardens in Montpelier (and nearby)
The community gardens listed below vary considerably in type and opportunity: Some may have no room for new members (but would welcome a visit or some help under COVID-19 distancing guidelines). Gardens associated with schools and other institutions may not be operational at this time, but might allow community members to use them by special arrangement; others may be looking for members or people to help out. Use contact information provided and, if you learn something about opportunities or closures, please let us know, so we can update information here.

Registered with VCGN
Click through for type of garden, description, and contact info.

Montpelier
The Garden at 485 Elm  485 Elm St., Montpelier, VT. Contact: Sheryl RapĂ©e-Adams sheryl@thegardenat485elm.org

North Branch Nature Center Community Garden 713 Elm St., Montpelier, VT. Contact: Nancy Chickering (802) 223-0577

Northfield Street Community Garden 155 Northfield St, Montpelier, VT. Contact: Daniel Costin danielpatrickcostin@yahoo.com or Vicki Lane vlane_6@comcast.net

National Life Community Garden 1 National Life Dr, Montpelier, VT. Contact: Valerie Johnson (802) 229-7096

Heaton Woods Residence Garden 10 Heaton St, Montpelier, VT. Contact: Cameron Segal (802) 223-1157

Union Elementary School Garden 1 Park Ave., Montpelier, VT

Montpelier High School 5 High School Dr., Montpelier, VT. Contact: Tom Sabo (802) 225-8000 (school office)

Family Center of Washington County 383 Sherwood Dr., Montpelier, VT

Nearby towns 
Transation Academy plot (U-32 Middle/HS) 970 Gallison Hill Rd., Montpelier, VT
Washington Electric Cooperative Garden 40 Church Street, East Montpelier, VT
The Resiliency Plot 2051 VT Rte 214, Plainfield, VT
Twinfield Union School Garden 106 Nasmith Brook Rd., Plainfield, VT
Calais School Garden 321 Lightening Ridge Rd., Plainfield, VT
Rumney School Garden 433 Shady Rill Rd., Middlesex, VT
Highgate Apartments Community Garden 121 Highgate Dr., Barre, VT
Green Acres Apartments Community Garden Chatot & Bergeron Streets, Barre,VT
Barre City Elementary and Middle School Garden 50 Parkside Ter., Barre, VT 

Not registered with VCGN
Gove Community Garden, Route 12, Montpelier, VT. Contact: Roy Datema roydatema3@gmail.com or Paul Markowitz paul@markowitzvt.com


If readers know of any other community gardens, please email contact information to phkelman@gmail.com


If, after speaking with and perhaps visiting some community gardens and reading about them on vcgn.org, you still think you want to start your own, we recommend that you consider this a long-range project with a few rewarding short-range goals.

Here are important pointers:



And please remember to bookmark this page of the Aging Intentionally eNewsletter, where we will be posting gardening resources (with links) at least through the fall. 

Some of the topics to come in future posts:

Spring 
Raised Beds: pros and cons
No-till: pros and cons
Permaculture: a longer range plan

Summer
Backyard Composting 
[Announcement: See Backyard Composting Basics webinars May 5th & 7th, described below]
Pests, blights, and other challenges
Watering: how much is too much, too little
When to plant fall crops in Vermont (Hint: ignore the instructions on most seed packets)

Next Fall
Harvesting and storing (canning, freezing, drying)
Till-free garden preparation for next year

Next Winter
Micro-gardening indoors in winter
Indoor Starts
Here's a preview in case you want to plant some starts this spring:

"Ask the Experts: How to save energy when you are starting seeds," Efficiency Vermont, 4/14/20



Backyard Composting Basics
Tuesday, May 5th, 1:00-2:30pm EDT 
Presented by Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District in partnership with the Composting Association of Vermont. 
or
Thursday, May 7th, 1:00-2:30pm EDT
Presented by Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District in partnership with the Montpelier Area Senior Center. 

In this webinar, you'll learn how to compost successfully - whether you're starting for the first time, or are a compost veteran. We'll cover cold composting, as well as active and passive management techniques. You'll leave with strategies for jump-starting an old pile, keeping smells down and animals out, and how to compost safely during this time of COVID-19. We'll also review Vermont's food scrap ban from the landfill, and other options for managing food scraps in addition to home composting. Join Cassandra Hemenway, Outreach Manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, trained and certified in turning food waste into soil! Also presenting is Theron Lay-Sleeper, CVSWMD outreach coordinator, and lifelong composter.



The Next Big Test: Re-opening our Society and Economy


Over the past week, the media has been reporting that federal and state officials have been working with public health experts to determine how to safely begin the re-opening of our stay-at-home society and economy. The challenge is to do so in ways that will not lead to a second major wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths. 

Literally all public health experts and the governors of most states agree that any relaxation of stay-at-home orders must be gradual and focused on those businesses and individual activities most capable of maintaining the imperative practices of physical distancing and thorough hygiene, as well as appropriate mask-wearing. Here in Vermont, the Governor has announced the first of what are sure to be a series of gradual relaxations of our stay-at-home orders.
Source: 

Meanwhile, in some states COVID-19 related “stay at home” orders have not yet even been issued, while in others they are becoming increasingly politicized in the shadow of the coming November elections.
Source: 
The enormous challenge posed by relaxation of stay-at-home orders is for state and large-city public health systems to this time be ready and able to respond and control outbreaks of COVID-19 that may re-emerge. In order to do so, public health and other government experts warn that at least the following conditions and capabilities must exist at the state and large-city levels:
  • Hospitals and other healthcare facilities must have the capacity and equipment necessary to protect their front-line staff and to treat all their patients, those with COVID-19 symptoms and those with other medical needs.
  • State and large-city health departments must have in place a robust system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantine/isolation. 
  • There must be a state and/or city-wide sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
Moreover, the success of re-opening a state or large city's stay-at-home society will depend to a large extent on its citizens' willingness to: voluntarily participate in a system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantine/isolation; follow public health guidelines regarding physical distancing, hygiene, and mask-wearing; and cooperate with any government emergency orders that may become necessary.

Let's briefly look at what may be required to attain the above conditions and capabilities and what may be some of the obstacles to doing so.

Source:

Hospitals and other Healthcare Facilities
The relatively good news is that, probably as the result of stay-at-home orders, to date most hospitals have not been completely overwhelmed. However, many healthcare facilities have paid a heavy price in first-line staff illnesses and fatalities, especially hospitals in high density, low-income neighborhoods, as well as nursing homes serving particularly vulnerable populations. 

Sources:

Moreover, it is uncertain if these healthcare institutions have the capacity or financial stability to withstand a second wave of COVID-19 cases, particularly if a relaxation of stay-at-home orders in combination with increased testing lead to a large surge of cases. For example, as of April 2, Vermont had too few ICU beds and ventilators to meet even the most optimistic scenario, which envisioned us still under stay-home-orders through mid-May. It has nowhere near enough such equipment for a larger surge that could occur when stay-at-home is relaxed. Nor is it clear that Vermont healthcare systems would be able to acquire needed equipment if competition among cities, states, countries, and even our own federal government for these vital resources continues to be a challenge affecting availability and cost.

Sources:

A Robust System of Testing, Contact Tracing, & Quarantine/Isolation 
In order to stop the spread of any infectious disease, public health systems must be able to identify those who are infected and then identify and contact others whom they may have infected

Then, those who are believed to have been exposed to the disease, but do not show any symptoms, would need to self-quarantine at home under careful self-observation and/or observation by others in their households and to contact a health provider should any possible symptoms arise. 
However, for a robust system to stop the spread of a “novel” virus like COVID-19--- for which the population has no immunity and there is as yet no vaccine or proven pharmaceutical treatment---those who test positive must be isolated, whether at home or in an isolation facility or at a hospital if symptoms are serious enough to require it.

Source:

That’s how such a system should work, but here are some of the known obstacles:

1. Testing:
States must be able to test many more people in many more situations, not just those who present serious symptoms and/or essential workers who are most likely to become infected or “people with connections.” They need to test people who may be totally asymptomatic or show very slight symptoms themselves, but might infect others, especially those at higher-risk. They need to test people who may not have personal care providers-- those who live in sparsely populated areas like the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont or people who are homeless or incarcerated. And they may need to test essential front-line workers more than once since they might easily become infected after previously testing negative.

However, to date, no state seems to have adequate test kits and/or the capacity to process them and return reliable results in a timely manner. As of April 19, the CDC reported that a total of around 373,000 tests had been processed nationwide; i.e., approximately .1% of the number of people currently living in the United States.

Of course, these are nationwide statistics and, it’s clear that some states have been able to source and have processed more than their “fair share” of tests; however, even these more fortunate states are highly unlikely to have the capacity for the levels of testing that would be needed for a robust system of testing, tracing, and quarantine/isolation. For example, as of 4/19/20, the Vermont Department of Health reported that since testing began in earnest about 6 weeks ago,12,726 tests had been “completed,” which is roughly 2% of people residing in our state; i.e. well above the national average of tests “processed” but far from enough for a robust system that would identify significant numbers of carriers. 

Sources:

2. Contact Tracing
Contact tracing involves identifying, locating, and informing anyone with whom someone confirmed as being infected has had contact within a certain period of time. Such an approach has never been attempted in the United States at the scale that would be needed to make a dent in the rate at which COVID-19 has spread and could continue to spread, especially if stay-at-home orders are abruptly relaxed or ignored.

There has been talk of using U.S. Census teams to carry out some door-to-door contact tracing, but to date, Massachusetts seems to be the only state to begin actually attempting contact tracing on a large scale.  In creating their plan, Massachusetts officials have been drawing upon the experiences of such large scale efforts in asian countries that were slammed by MERS and SARS in recent years; and it seems likely that Vermont and other neighboring states will be keeping a close eye on their experiment, in terms of both its effectiveness and cost.

The potential for such an approach to work in a small rural state like Vermont seems like it could be a mixed bag: on one hand, we have many fewer people to reach; on the other hand, it may be difficult to reach people in sparsely populated areas, and then there’s the always present political issue of the cost to the state and its taxpayers. 

Source:

3. Quarantine & Isolation 
This is where we begin to wade into the tricky territory of personal freedoms and state mandated behavior. Once people test positive for COVID-19, to what extent can or should the government determine what they or anyone identified as having had contact with them should or shouldn’t do? Or, to put it in another way: in the midst of a public health emergency like COVID-19, where is the line between a government recommendation and a government requirement?


Source:
“Barr: Some governors' action 'infringes on a fundamental right' during coronavirus,” The Hill, 4/21/20

The media is already carrying stories about angry public protests against stay-at-home orders in Michigan and elsewhere, which does not bode well for government-mandated quarantine or isolation. Fortunately for us in Vermont, our Governor seems to have confidence in Vermonters’ capacity for self-regulation, a good sense of when and how restrictive an executive order needs to be, a light touch when it comes to enforcement, and skillful communication of all of these. (Note: this is not meant as a political endorsement, but rather a fair assessment of his leadership and performance during this crisis, so far.)

Source:

Nevertheless, Governor Scott and Vermont public health officials are going to have some tough calls to make, as they relax components of Vermont’s various stay-at-home executive orders and as more testing is done, which will almost certainly uncover more people who are infected despite having few if any symptoms. Among these decisions is almost certain to be whether or not to mandate home quarantine for people who are known to have had contact with someone who tested positive and/or isolation for those who test positive; or to leave these choices up to them. 

Sources:
For example, contrast Vermont’s current recommendation regarding masks with New York State’s mandate to do so:

4. A sustained reduction in cases over a period of 14 days
The epidemiological reasoning for why this should be a requirement for the safe re-opening of a state or city is too complex to explain here, except to say that it is based on the idea that it can take up to 14 days for infected people to show symptoms. 

Source:
The most serious difficulty with this requirement to have a "sustained reduction in cases over 14-days" is that without mass testing, we simply have no meaningful way of counting cases. Consider the following:
  • To date, the number of people who have been tested nationally and in most states and cities is a very small and gradually increasing target, so that it is almost impossible to make any kind of statistically valid projection of numbers of people infected in the overall population of a state or municipality.
  • In the absence mass testing the number of cases being counted will continue to leave out most of the many carriers who are asymptomatic or who may have very mild symptoms, even though they are, in fact, the most likely spreaders of the disease. 
  • Largely due to the need to ration limited test kits and processing capacity, the criteria for ordering tests to be done varies widely among cities and states and even within states, resulting in unknowable variations in who is and isn't counted as a case. For example, some “pools” of testing data may consist mainly of people in “hot clusters” (like nursing homes or correctional facilities) or essential workers with high exposure (like healthcare workers) while other “pools” might consist of people with few if any symptoms (like players and staff of sports teams or others “with connections”).
A smaller, but absurd factor, in making case counts hard to take seriously as a criteria for re-opening is the fact that some states and cities haven’t been counting as “cases” many people who have died as a result of COVID-19 without ever having been tested. (This is the main reason that we have seen huge one day jumps in mortality statistics when states or cities decide to count such deaths as COVID-related after not having done so initially.)  

There are other measures that have been proposed to signal when it might be safe to re-open, but all of these have the same basic flaws: too few tests and almost no random sampling or advanced statistical treatment of the data that we do have, without which we don’t have statistically reliable infection data on any of a wide range of sub-populations (e.g., by age, gender, race, geography, occupation, housing situation, etc.). 

As a result, for example, we have no way of measuring rates of infection, severity of infection, or mortality among people in front-line jobs (particularly healthcare) or in various age cohorts, or living in public housing complexes or prisons, or people with any number of suspected underlying health conditions, etc. Nor, do we have data to help us determine for example, how well ventilators, or various kinds of PPE for health-workers, or hospital hygiene techniques, or various isolation measures are really working to contain the disease.

Indeed, the paucity of testing overall and the non-controlled variation in the sub-populations being tested in the various states and cities, makes the "numbers" being reported to the public by the CDC and health departments nearly useless "factoids."
And to make matters even more confusing, the reporting and interpretation of rates of infection, and mortality are becoming politicized, as government officials at the federal and state levels begin to look at how and when to begin relaxing social-distancing policies in order to re-start the economy.

So, readers are advised to be wary of any person, organization, or media source that makes claims, based on such incomplete and statistically limited data. 

Sources: 

The Road to Semi-normal
As we in Vermont venture gradually into a relaxation of stay-at-home orders, it is important that we recognize not only the obstacles described above, but also the monumental cost of the COVID-19 crisis in financial and socio-emotional terms for the country, including nearly every individual person, most small businesses, entire sectors of the national economy and many of its largest businesses, state and local governments, not-for-profit organizations, and so forth. 
Some populations and institutions have been harmed much more than others, likely irreparably; others will recover and prosper as they have before, but all will be facing a very different country and world than before this pandemic. And although, it isn’t at all clear what this world will look like, it seems quite likely that the same populations that have been most vulnerable in the past will continue to be the most vulnerable, perhaps even more so.