Food shortages are coming: Time to plant a Victory Garden

By Patrice Lewis

Last week I wrote about the potentially catastrophic implications of a global fertilizer shortage. Modern agriculture is scarily, frighteningly dependent on commercial fertilizers to feed the world. “Half the world’s population gets food as a result of fertilizers … and if that’s removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%,” Svein Tore Holsether, head of agri company Yara International, told the BBC.

That’s a terrifying statistic, one that should strike fear even into the hearts of comfortable American urbanites. It’s a triple-whammy: less food on the international market, scarce fertilizer and skyrocketing gas prices (which translates to higher transportation costs). What can be done?

Since commercial agriculture is dependent on commercial fertilizer, non-commercial agriculture may become necessary to bridge the gap. In other words, it’s time to bring back Victory Gardens.

A Victory Garden – sometimes called a crisis garden – is simply a small garden squeezed into any available spot of dirt to supplement food sources during times of national emergencies (such as world wars). They were planted in yards, vacant lots, parks, sports fields, golf courses, roof tops, railway edges, and even bomb craters. Some were planted through community efforts, but many were simply individual endeavors.

Historically, planting Victory Gardens was encouraged to relieve pressure on an overburdened food system so more food could be shipped to soldiers. Governments urged civilians to do their patriotic duty and “sow the seeds of victory.” The cumulative harvest of millions of tiny gardens saved many nations from starvation. Read that again: The cumulative harvest of millions of tiny gardens saved many nations from starvation. During World War II, about one-third to one-half of America’s fruits and vegetables came from Victory Gardens. That is a staggering proportion.

And this, dear readers, may be the key. Right now it’s early spring. In temperate climates, it’s the perfect time to get started planting your Victory Garden.

Victory Gardens were not (necessarily) massive parcels capable of feeding entire neighborhoods. Most were small and concentrated plots tucked into odd corners and unused spaces. Most people focused on just a few staple vegetables, with surplus passed around and swapped. (“I’ll trade you a bushel of my carrots for a gallon of your strawberries.”) Neighbors traded with neighbors, family with family, friends with friends.

A Victory Garden is a collective effort. When an ant returns to the nest with a bit of food, it doesn’t expect that bit to feed the colony for a year. But the collective effort of all the ants will, indeed, feed the colony. That’s how Victory Gardens work. That’s why the cumulative efforts of these tiny plots have saved nations from starvation in the past.

What should you plant in a Victory Garden? Obviously this will depend on your amount of space, location, tastes, agricultural zone, amount of sunlight and a host of other factors; but keep in mind calories and nutrition. High-calorie choices include potatoes, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, green and dry beans, corn, etc.

If seeds are in short supply online or in your local big box stores, there are some alternatives:

  • Ask your gardening friends for any surplus seeds they can spare.
  • Try local hardware stores, animal feed stores, smaller home and garden stores, and grocery stores. Even dollar stores often carry seeds.
  • Check farm supply stores for bulk seeds such as corn, beans, peas, seed potatoes and onion sets. These can be divvied up among gardening friends and neighbors.
  • If you have seed packets that are several years old, don’t hesitate to plant them even if they’re “expired.” Germination rates may be lower than with fresh seeds, but who cares?
  • Try seed exchanges. These are nonprofit or volunteer groups of passionate gardeners who conserve and share seeds. Seed exchanges can be local, regional, or national.
  • A surprising number of ordinary items from the grocery store can be grown. Think in terms of dried beans (any type), popcorn, raw peanuts (do NOT remove the paper skin or they won’t grow), raw sunflower seeds (in the shell), and spice seeds such as poppy seeds, coriander, fennel and mustard seeds.
  • Harvest seeds from grocery store produce. Tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, melons, fresh corn (let the kernels dry on the cob first) – all have seeds which can be planted. Of course you won’t know if the produce is hybrid or not, but plant them anyway. What do you have to lose? The worst that can happen is the resulting plant may not be identical to its parent plant.
  • Sprout new plants from leftover root ends of grocery-store produce. This method often requires nothing more than a jar of shallow water (into which the root end is placed) and a sunny windowsill. Change the water when it gets cloudy. People are growing leeks, green onions, cabbage, lettuce, celery, bok choy, mint, basil, rosemary, and fennel fronds. Commercial potatoes and sweet potatoes are often treated with a sprouting inhibitor, but many people have fine success in growing them anyway (make sure each planted piece has at least one eye). People have even sprouted avocado pits, raw coffee beans and pineapple tops.

Balconies, patios, backyards, window boxes, pots on the front steps or stoop – I don’t care where you are or how little space you have, USE IT. If you have any outdoor space to call your own, USE IT. There are endless tricks for packing many plants into tiny growing spaces (think “vertical”). Now is the time to learn. You have no excuse not to do something, anything.

What if you have no space to garden? With few exceptions, I don’t believe you. If you have a window, you have space. Pots of herbs, sprouting some green onions, a hanging basket of strawberries – every little bit helps. I’ve even seen people train climbing beans to wrap around the perimeter of a window frame as a “house plant.”

Now is not the time to look to the government to save you, especially the inept and bumbling government under the current administration. Food is a universal requirement, and the threat of an engineered global famine is not something to dismiss.

Nor is this the time for normalcy bias, claiming “it can’t happen here” or “it can’t happen to me.” Instead, this is the time to pump your fist in the air, take personal responsibility, and do something useful and productive toward food security. Plant a Victory Garden.

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