Planting a Victory Garden
With the uncertainty of COVID-19, many people are revisiting the idea of planting Victory Gardens. During the Second World War, rationing food became necessary. The farms of the United States were stretched to their limits trying to feed citizens at home, the military and many of the Allies.
Preserved foods were especially scarce on the home front, which led to the official launching of the Victory Garden Program in 1941. Individuals and civic groups were encouraged to plant gardens in any available space. Victory gardeners knew that besides putting fresh fruits and vegetables on their tables, they were helping to free up food for those fighting on the front. Surplus food could be preserved at home to supplement diets over the winter.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the New Hampshire stay-at-home order has forced many families to think about food and their relationship to obtaining food in new ways. Growing a modern Victory Garden can be a rewarding and worthwhile prospect.
Though producing fruits and vegetables on a small scale at home can end up being more expensive than shopping at the grocery store, or farmers market, it is an excellent way to boost morale and get some outdoor exercise. There is joy in supplementing your diet with homegrown food, not to mention that freshly picked fruits and vegetables can be far more delicious than those purchased from the store.
Preparing the Garden Site
Though spring is well underway, it is not too late to begin planning a vegetable garden. Before you get too carried away with starting seeds or purchasing plants, you need to make sure you have a site that is suitable for growing vegetables. Most vegetables do best in full sun, with over eight hours of direct sun a day.
If you don’t get that much sun, stick to growing greens and herbs, which can tolerate a small amount of shade. Also, it’s important to avoid planting a garden in low-lying areas that tend to hold water after rain events, because vegetables need well-drained soils to thrive.
If you have any concerns about what might be in your soil, or if you have very poor soil, a raised bed garden might be the best way to go. In fact, if you’ve never grown vegetables before, it is a very good idea to start small with a single raised bed or a few containers.
Choosing What to Plant
It’s also important to carefully consider how much time and energy you expect to be able to spend on gardening. Vegetable plants will need to be tended nearly every day, between scouting for pest issues, weeding, watering and harvesting. The bigger your garden, the more time you’ll need to make for caring for it.
Equally crucial is deciding which crops to grow and how much of each. A mistake that many beginning gardeners make is trying to plant too many things in a small space. Vegetable plants are actually healthier and more productive when they are spaced far enough apart to encourage good air flow and light penetration. It may be helpful to consider which crops you enjoy fresh-picked the most, such as tomatoes or snap peas, and focus on growing those, knowing that you can pick up many of the others at a local farm stand.
Starting Seeds or Buying Plants
Some gardeners like to start their own plants from seed because it allows them to grow unique varieties that aren’t readily available at garden centers. However, it also requires a fair amount of equipment and can initially be expensive. Seed starting indoors is necessary for some warm season crops that take a long time to develop, like peppers and tomatoes.
If don’t want to deal with the hassle of starting your own plants from seed, you can buy small plants at nurseries and garden centers in the spring. Many vegetables can be sown directly in the garden too, such as cucumbers, squash, peas and beans. Regardless of whether you start your own or purchase plants, make sure to plant them outside at an appropriate time. While some veggies can be put in the garden in early April, cold sensitive crops shouldn’t go in the ground until a week or two after the last frost.
Before planting, it is never a bad idea to test the pH of the soil. In general, vegetable crops grow best in soils with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Most native soils in NH are much more acidic than this and require the addition of lime or wood ash to raise the pH and add calcium and magnesium to the soil.
While the UNH Cooperative Extension soil testing lab is currently closed, prospective gardeners can make do with simple pH test kits from the hardware store or garden center. If the pH is below 6.0, adding wood ash may be necessary. Wood ash changes the soil pH faster than lime, so it is a better choice for making soil adjustments in the spring.
Vegetable plants typically require fertilization in one form or another. If you have soil test results from a previous year, use those fertilizer recommendations again. If you don’t have a soil test, refer to these vegetable fertilizing guidelines.
Personal preference will determine whether you use synthetic fertilizers (such as 10-10-10), organic fertilizers from plant or animal-based materials or a mixture of the two. Regardless of which type of fertilizer you choose, it should be incorporated into the soil immediately before planting – not sooner. If fertilizer is applied too early, many of the nutrients may be lost before plants have a chance to use them.
Preserving the Harvest
The mark of having a truly successful Victory Garden is having enough produce to preserve for use over the winter months. Many vegetables lend themselves well to both canning and freezing. Both of these methods are excellent ways of preserving surplus food, as long as they are done properly!
Whether you’re an experienced grower or new to gardening, UNH Extension is here to help make your Victory Garden a success.
Photo Credit: Local Food Initiative
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