Pandemic victory gardens remind us that Southern agriculture is a form of resistance

By Abbey Crain

Reckon Staff Writer

I bought a tomato plant after the second week of quarantine.

I don’t particularly love tomatoes. But they were familiar. I’d seen them grown in pots on my grandparent’s back porch, plucked from backyards, slathered with Duke’s and lined up outside grocery stores, sweating and worm-eaten in September. I already had plenty of houseplants that turned to porch plants just as the weather warmed up in March, but I envisioned a tomato sandwich. I have time, too much if you ask me. And I wanted the tomato to be mine.

I’m not the only one with a desire to get dirt under my fingernails for the first time during quarantine. It seems like everyone with a front porch and an Instagram account has tried their hand at raised bed gardening during the pandemic. According to a report by MarketWatch, fruit and vegetable seed sales are up, selling out on Walmart’s website. As of July 21, more than 102,000 photos were tagged using the #victorygarden hashtag.

In a recent TV commercial, Miracle Gro encouraged people to grow their own victorgardens. The motto “When the going gets tough, the tough get growing” scrolled across the screen over a pair of hands cupping a handful of dirt

“Having a small little garden — however big it is, if it’s a bed in a tiny front yard or just some containers on your back stoop — being able to care for something can keep you sane,” said Andre Gallant, a Southern food writer and photographer in Athens, Ga.

Gallant said gardening — or, more specifically, growing your own food — can be a salve for uncertainty, especially for caregivers during quarantine who want to establish concrete ways to support their family.

Gallant said he hopes quarantine gardens are just the starting point for young folks looking for productive ways to take care of themselves and their neighbors. He said a common mistake for beginner gardeners is growing too much food for one family to consume in a season. So hopefully we will learn to share. Sharing is how victorgardens began in the first place.

In 1917, just before World War I began, Charles Lathrop Pack organized the National War Garden Commission to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort by growing their own food in the form of a victorgarden. During World War II, home gardens were again encouraged by the government, this time to safeguard against food shortages at home and ease the burden on farmers feeding troops overseas:

“Sow the seeds of victory. Plant and raise your own vegetables”

My Mamaw, Rose Roth, had her very own victorgarden in Homewood, Ala., during the second World War. She said she and her brother grew an abundance of green beans and handed sell them neighbors on the sidewalk.

“My mother grew so many beans — pole beans — that my brother and I had a stand and we sold like people would sell lemonade.”

She and her son who lives with her grew a garden for the first time in a decade during the pandemic. She said she has been humming “When the Lights Go On Again,” a war song by Vaughn Monroe, while she sits and watches him tend to her vegetable garden.

But gardening has not always been an act of patriotism. In the South, it has also proven to be an act of resistance.

The same year the first victorgardens were established, sharecropper and Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Miss. Hamer founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the state Democratic Party, which at that time prohibited black people from participating, and helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. She also created the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which allowed black farmers to collectively buy land to grow crops to feed their families.

“Hamer, a former sharecropper turned civil rights activist, thought that if blacks could reimagine their relationship with land — in the context of freedom, agrarianism, and economic independence—they could be empowered to resist and survive their current plight,” Bobby J. Smith II wrote in the Journal of Agriculture in 2018.

Hamer viewed food, growing food, as a means to freedom that black farmers in 1970s Mississippi struggled to achieve.

In 2009, shortly after the housing market collapse, The Washington Post reported that the National Gardening Association documented 19 percent more households planned to grow their own fruits, vegetables and herbs in part to save money on groceries.

The South has been growing its own food as long as for as long as folks have called the South home, for many years using enslaved people to profit from the area’s rich agricultural harvests. Gallant said Southerners getting “back to their roots” isn’t anything new. It’s something that always comes up during times of strife and uncertainty.

“It’s just a little reassurance that you have a little bit of control over something,” Gallant said. “You can make good happen.”

Turns out, I planted the wrong tomatoes. I’ve had two measly little fruits that I tossed in with a pasta salad. My squash didn’t produce jack squat because I didn’t know you had to pollinate the blossoms yourself if you didn’t have any pollinator flowers close by. But I have had success with my cucumbers, so much so that I’ve given lots of them away. I don’t know how much I’ve saved on groceries. But I do know I have more of an appreciation for my own ability to take care of myself and felt a little more connected to my grandma, even during a global pandemic.

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