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JOHN DeMONT: Nova Scotia victory gardens are making a pandemic comeback

John DeMont is well on the way to having a victory garden. Lisa Napier Photo
John DeMont is well on the way to having a victory garden. Lisa Napier Photo

Last summer, some neighbours, and my wife and I were standing in front of the place where we are waiting out the lockdown. One of them, an old hand in the garden, asked me how our vegetable patch out back was doing.

I said terrible, a complete writeoff, then went back to talking about hurricane Dorian, which had just swept through the day before and made quite a mess of things.

A couple of minutes later Keith, my green-thumbed neighbour, held out half-a-dozen or so red potatoes which, had I dug down deeply enough, I would have discovered growing beneath the mixture of seaweed, leaves and other yard debris.

In the weeks that followed the patch yielded not just potatoes, but runner beans, and some kind of squash -- I’d lost the seed packets for all of them, another rookie mistake — which I took pictures of, forced on friends, and just left sitting around, displayed, I imagined, as luminously as a Mary Pratt painting.

All in all, the “bounty” was probably enough for a few dinners. But you wouldn’t have known that to hear me talk.

When I hit full conversational steam, you might have thought I was the Miles Davis of the veggie garden, elegantly efficient, making up in quality what I lacked in quantity.

The whole thing had a narcotic effect.

An NFB film from 1984, featuring Halifax gardener Carol Bowlby.

My Urban Garden, Polly Bennell, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

On sunny afternoons in late summer and early fall, I lugged rocks to make borders, laid down paper and cardboard as a weed barrier, and wheel-barrowed seaweed from a nearby shoreline.

I even tossed some garlic cloves in one of the little plots, since I understood that garlic could grow through the winter.

When I was finished I sat down on a nearby rock and popped a beer.

Then, a happy man, I looked out at the four beds, which would be ready for next year, which, of course, is now.

This turned out to be impeccable, if lucky, timing.

To grow something, after all, is ultimately a hopeful act.

During the Second World War, the Canadian Encyclopedia tells us, the Government of Canada, like governments in England and the United States, encouraged citizens to plant vegetable plots, known as victory gardens, in residential yards and public spaces.

According to the encyclopedia, in 1944 an estimated 209,200 of these gardens were being grown across Canada, to free up railcars and transport trucks to move things other than vegetables, and also to boost morale on the home front.

Now, as we know, a new enemy threatens our collective spirit. Anxiety is everywhere. So, if social media is any indication, are coronavirus victory gardens, which help alleviate people’s worries about food insecurity in these insecure times.

But these gardens are also a distraction from the frightening numbers and the awful news.

To grow something, after all, is ultimately a hopeful act. It gives us something to look forward to in today’s locked-down, self-isolated world.

“I find great comfort in the garden,” Halifax gardening author, broadcaster and Chronicle Herald columnist Niki Jabbour explained Tuesday. “In the process of starting seeds and waiting impatiently for them to germinate, in tucking baby lettuces in my raised beds, in planting herbs in pots on my deck.”

So, in my way, do I — even if, at this stage in my gardening life, what gives me distraction is the mule labour of preparing the vegetable patch, and what comforts me is the notion that from my labour something, anything of practical value will emerge.

Two of gardening expert Niki Jabbour's favourite cherry tomatoes -- sungold and rapunzel. - Niki Jabbour
Two of gardening expert Niki Jabbour's favourite cherry tomatoes -- sungold and rapunzel. - Niki Jabbour

Jabbour has some wise counsel for rank beginners like me. Start small “perhaps with just a few containers or a simple raised bed,” since that allows the newbie to gain experience without the whole thing becoming a chore.

Choose your site carefully since most veggies need at least eight hours of full sun to grow.

Once you’ve enriched the soil with compost, it's easy to get going even while in lockdown. Many local nurseries will take your order online or over the phone then when you pull up in your car, drop the soil, compost, seeds and other supplies right into the trunk.

She told me to stick with “reliable and easy to grow crops” like bush beans, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, peas, and leaf lettuce. But be sensible, she said, grow what you like to eat.

As well, pay attention to the planting information on those little seed packets to ensure that you properly space your crops, and plant them at the right time of year.

After I learned this I walked into the next room and got the dish that held all the seeds I had already bought to plant in the weeks ahead.

None of them were on Jabbour’s beginner’s list.

But the names -- Bloomsdale spinach, Red Russian kale, King Arthur red peppers, Monte Cristo and Monte Gusto climbing French beans, Waltham butternut squash, Early Snowball cauliflower — were beautiful.

So were the pictures, sure to be unrecognizable as whatever grows out in the back forty.

That, of course, is a ways off. At that point, my hope is that my coronavirus victory garden will have done its job.


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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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