GARDENING IN IOWA

Interest in gardening flourishes in pandemic

Arlo, 15, Jen, Mae, 12, and Ted Knights sit in their garden April 19 next to their home in Iowa City. Garden centers say
Arlo, 15, Jen, Mae, 12, and Ted Knights sit in their garden April 19 next to their home in Iowa City. Garden centers say more people than ever are starting their own gardens this year. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

When Clarity Guerra and her wife, Lauren Darby, moved into their new house in Iowa City this year, they immediately started planning where the garden would be.

The couple have always had a garden, but this year, Guerra said they’re more serious about it than ever. They’re ramping up their efforts and decided to try a German permaculture method called hugelkultur.

“As long as we’ve been able, we have gardened. But this year it takes on a new urgency. It almost kind of hearkens back to a victory garden of sorts, going back to World War II,” Guerra said. “I take solace in knowing I can grow my own food. The ability to rely on yourself and what you can grow gives some peace of mind right now.”

Across the country, in response to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing and stay at home measures to fight it, people are talking about planting modern versions of victory gardens, referencing the 1940s campaigns that encouraged Americans to plant backyard gardens to help the war effort.

This is a different kind of war, but people still want to feel like they’re doing something, said Brittany Borghi of Iowa City.

“We don’t know when this is going to end, and it felt like a good time to think about what we can do, what we can control, what we can hold in our hands,” she said. “Maybe having a little seed to hold is enough to get through the day.”

She and her boyfriend, Colin Kostelecky, asked their landlord if they could plant a garden in the grass in front of their Iowa City apartment. He gave them the go-ahead, and now the couple, are planning raised beds. Borghi started seeds inside her house and has been researching the best ways to help them thrive.

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Tending the seedlings has become a source of solace, she said, even when she’s worried she’s not doing things correctly.

“Seedlings are hard, but it’s so nice, because it’s a way to externalize all my anxieties,” she said. “Here’s something that needs my constant care and attention — these tiny plants. I have to keep them alive.”

She said she previously had participated in a shared community garden plot, but when social distancing guidelines started, she decided this was the year to have her own garden.

“I started feeling like, A) What am I going to do with all my time? and B) The small corner of my apocalyptic mind was like, ‘What if we don’t have food, what if the supply chain goes down?’ So I was like, ‘I want to commit to this,” she said.

Jen and Ted Knights of Iowa City are getting back into gardening after a hiatus. Ted is a botanist by trade, and Jen used to garden professionally, but they hadn’t had their own garden in a few years because their garden didn’t have suitable space.

This year, Jen Knights was determined and called the landlord of the rental house next door. He agreed to let them plant on unused space on his lawn.

“Honestly, we have so much more time at home now, and being a person whose very involved with the community, I was like, man, I need something to fill up my time that feels productive,” she said. “And with two kids at home — I thought it would be a good activity that would offer some enrichment.”

Another reason; her daughter has an underlying medical condition, so they’ve been extra cautious about exposure to the virus and have been trying to limit outside contact as much as possible.

“It’s really reassuring to know exactly where your food comes from, and, honestly, to know no human hands have touched it other than your own,” she said. “There’s nothing more safe than quarantining your food production as well as your family. This is one small way we can provide for ourselves that is completely fear free.”

At Frontier Garden Center in Cedar Rapids, owner Lynn Burrell said he’s not seen demand for garden supplies like he has this spring in the 42 years his shop has been open.

“People will mention that they’re planting a victory garden,” he said. “Both people coming in and on the phone, too, there a just lots of people wanting to plant gardens.”

Seed companies have seen huge demand as well; Decorah-based nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange has stopped taking new orders, citing a need to catch up after a sharp increase in orders.

Calls have increased to the Linn County Master Gardener Hortline, (319) 447-0647, where volunteers answer gardening questions, said Master Gardener Coordinator Jean Wilson.

The line still is being staffed; if no one answers, people can leave a message and someone will call them back. Questions also can be emailed to linncountymastergardener@gmail.com.

The Master Gardener program and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach also have free publications online with information on everything from how to plan a vegetable garden to how to make compost to how to harvest and store produce.

Wilson offered some tips for first time gardeners, including to be realistic about expectations.

“Don’t be too ambitious. Everybody seems to think we can just put some seeds in the earth and water them a bit and it will be great,” she said. “But gardening can be time intensive. You need to think about the site, about animals, about planting near a water source so it’s easy to water. Your site should get at least six hours of sunlight and, hopefully, have good drainage.”

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Still, she said people shouldn’t be intimidated. A garden doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking to be successful.

“With gardening, you don’t have to have a plot of earth. You can do this in a pot on your patio. I’ve grown tomatoes, beans, peppers on my deck,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a huge investment. Anybody can give it a try.”

Master Gardeners are hoping people take the victory garden idea to heart and donate produce from their gardens to local food pantries.

The organization already was promoting the “Connect, Grow, Share a Row” initiative, which encourages people to plant a designated row in their gardens to donate.

“It’s helping your neighbors. You don’t know who of your neighbors may need that produce in the future,” Wilson said.

Borghi said that has been on her mind, as she thinks about what a modern day victory garden means.

“In the current political moment, where so much seems surreal and also outside of our reach, we can do so much with what’s in front of us,” Borghi said. “If we can help each other by growing some vegetables and giving them to our neighbors or giving them to people who don’t have food, we can do a lot for ourselves and do a lot when things feel bad … We have so much, and the world is so abundant. It’s not a time to shirk from what we can give and what we can make for one another. It’s a time to think about what we can do for each other.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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