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Plant a Victory Garden During Coronavirus Quarantine | The Old Farmer's Almanac

What to Plant in a Victory Garden

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How to Plant a Victory Garden

Robin Sweetser
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Victory gardens continue to flourish! So, what is a victory garden? How do you grow a victory garden? What should you plant? Let's get started with some tips on what to plant and how to get your own victory garden growing.

Last spring, victory gardening saw a dramatic resurgence. For a lot of folks, it was the first time they had ever gardened and there was a lot of learning along the way.  This year, we want to help those second-year gardeners avoid a sophomore slump with a firmer plan, and encourage first-timers to join the troops and start a victory garden of their own.

What is a Victory Garden?

The name comes from the Victory Gardens that were planted across the United States during World Wars I and II. Back in 1917, during World War 1, the National War Garden Commission promoted home gardening in order to free up crops to feed soldiers who were fighting overseas. They inspired students—calling them "soldiers of the soil"—to do their part in the war and help plant Liberty Gardens. When it started to look like the US and its allies would win the war, the name of the gardens was changed to Victory Gardens.

Eleanor Roosevelt also began a new Victory Garden campaign after Pearl Harbor was bombed and Americans dug in once again for Uncle Sam.

By the end of World War II, nearly two million gardens produced 40% of produce consumed in the country!!

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Picture taken from the book All the Presidents' Gardens by Marta McDowell

Benefits of a Victory Garden

While last year's empty shelves and labor shortages did not compare to wartime, it's no surprise folks returned to vegetable gardening. The goals today aren't quite as ambitious, but growing your own food has become popular again.

  • Like then, it provides a morale boost, lots of healthy outdoor time and exercise—and the satisfaction that comes with being even a little self-sufficient. It's very rewarding to simply experience the miraculous process that is growing food and say, "I grew that!"
  • Growing your own food—even a little—also helps the environment; you're using less chemicals, eating food that doesn't have to travel across the country, and rebuilding your soil health.
  • Your garden can be your seasonal supermarket. Lessen trips to the store and stretch your budget by planning meals around what is ready to harvest. You will be providing your family with the freshest and most nutritious food, picked at its peak. Way better than store-bought!
  • If you have thought about growing a vegetable garden in the past but didn't have time, take advantage of this opportunity to start a garden. Planting is a hopeful act and will give you a break from the news of the day. Get the whole family involved and dig in!

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Decide What to Plant

The Victory Garden was focused on crops that were easy to grow, including fresh vegetables in season as well as root crops and hardier crops that could be stored during the winter. 

Traditional crops included leafy greens, beans, watermelon, and tomatoes, but grow what your family likes to eat. Don't bother with turnips if no one in the family likes them. Interestingly, crops including kohlrabi, Swiss chard, and kale were not common in the United States before Victory Gardens but Americans came to know these plants better because they were easy to grow.  See top 10 vegetables for beginners.

Here is a sampling of crops to grow by season. In many regions, many of the "cool-season" crops (leafy lettuces, root veggies, peas) are planted in March, but the "warm-season" crops (zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers) are planted when the soil is warmer in June. Then "cool-season" crops could be planted again in late summer for fall harvest.

Planting dates depend on your growing zones. See the Almanac Planting Calendar for the first planting dates by zip code.

Spring gardens:

  • beets
  • carrots,
  • chard
  • leaf lettuce,
  • kale,
  • kohlrabi,
  • mustard
  • onion,
  • parsnips
  • peas,
  • potatoes,
  • radishes.
  • spinach,
  • turnips.

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Summer gardens:

  • Basil,
  • beans (pole, bush, and lima),
  • corn,
  • cucumbers,
  • okra,
  • peppers,
  • pumpkin, 
  • winter and summer squash,
  • Swiss chard
  • tomatoes,
  • watermelon.

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Fall and winter gardens:

  • Beets,
  • carrots, 
  • lettuce,
  • kale
  • kohlrabi,
  • mustard greens,
  • parsley,
  • parsnips,
  • radish,
  • spinach,
  • Swiss chard,
  • turnips.

Seeds Vs. Transplants

Note that most seeds are best sown outside direction into the ground. But warm-weather plants such as tomatoes and peppers and eggplants are best started indoors under grow lights and transplanted when the soil is warm enough—or bought as small starter plants (also called transplants) from your local garden center or nursery and transplant in the ground. Having the nursery start your warm-weather plants is more expensive but they're ready to go, which is especially important if you have a short growing season. You want those tomatoes to turn red!

Heirloom Vs. Hybrid Varieties

Also, when you buy seeds, you will notice that their are both "heirloom" and "hybrid" varieties. Heirlooms are the classic "old-fashioned" varieties which are rich in flavor. A favorite heirloom tomato is "Cherokee Purple" which is meaty and full of rich flavor. The hybrids are bred to resist certain diseases or tolerate drought or ripen earlier. Feel free to experiment to discover the varieties that work for you.

See 20 of my favorite heirloom varieties.

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How to Grow a Victory Garden

Here are a few first steps to do right now:

  • Choose a location that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. This should be away from trees, structures, and plants that cause shade. You may wish to monitor your sunlight for the day to ensure it's sunny enough.
     
  • Plan your vegetable garden layout! For best results, put each plant in its proper place. If you need help, try our the Almanac Garden Planner—free for 7 days!

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Image: Victory Garden for a Family of Five. Designed on the Garden Planner

  • If your soil seems poor or thin, get a soil test! It will give you important information you need to have a successful garden. You will want to test for lead if you live in an older home. See 3 simple DIY soil tests or just call your local county extension office which may offer a free or low-cost soil test.
     
  • Order seeds. Catalog companies are usually the cheapest source for seeds, plants, and supplies. Order as soon as possible. Seed companies are experiencing high demand and it may take longer than usual to get your seeds. See 40+ garden seed catalog companies.
     
  • Go to nurseries and greenhouses during off peak times to keep a safe distance from other shoppers. Usually, the lots are fairly empty. If you call in your order, they'll load everything into your trunk with no interaction.
     
  • Amend your soil with 3 to 4 inches of organic matter such as compost or aged manure; this will feed the soil so it has nutrients for the plants.
     
  • Follow the recommended spacing on the packet. Don't over-plant unless you plan to do some preserving for future use.
     
  • Stagger sowing so it all doesn't come at once. Here's how to stagger lettuce seeds.
     
  • A typical garden needs about 1 inch of water per week unless the days are extremely hot. You can measure water by setting out an empty tuna can. One way to do soil check is to stick your finger in the soil to the first digit. If it comes out dry, your plants need more water. If your fingertip is moist with a little soil on it, it's fine.
     
  • It's better to do a deep, long watering than frequent shallow waterings for healthy roots. Also, be sure to water at the soil level and NOT from overhead as this causes leaf and plant disease.
     
  • Walk around your garden daily and pick out competing weeds when they're young, and check for insect issues. 
     
  • Don't forget flowers. They are food for the soul.

See the Almanac's Growing Guides for vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers.

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When we were ordered to stay at home, I was glad to have some of the staples we had grown including potatoes, onions, squash, canned pears, tomato sauce, pesto, and frozen blueberries still on hand. It gave a little boost to my sense of security. For me this year will be very much like most years since the frugal New Englander in me always tries to grow as much of our food as possible.

Along with learning how to garden, learn the art of food preservation, including canning and pickling.

Good Articles for Beginners

But if this is your first experience growing your own subsistence garden, look at my previous posts on  Garden Planning for Beginners and Growing a Pantry Garden.

There are several posts for container growing and balcony gardens for apartment dwellers too.

Dig for Victory!

I still have my Nana's Victory Canning book from World War II. It is full of encouraging slogans like "Dig for Victory" and "Gardens Will Help. Weed 'em and Reap For Victory" and "Keep the Home Soil Toiling". 

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The ultimate in food security is growing your own. Depending on what you decide to plant, in 40 to 90 days you'll be eating well! Get out of the house and into the sunshine!

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