In early March, Marco Mavromaras moved into a camper van in his front yard. Since his job as an emergency room doctor puts him on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, the move was a precautionary measure to keep his wife, Lauren, and their kids safe. The San Angelo couple knew that self-isolating was the right call, but that didn’t make the decision any easier. They especially missed eating dinner together at the family table. Then they found a hobby they could safely share.
Marco and Lauren had always talked about starting a garden, but now they finally had the time to design and plant together. Marco spent his days off cutting wood outdoors for new raised garden beds, while Lauren set up the power, assembled the worktable, and delivered fresh supplies. With the kids joining in to help spread the soil, the project gave the whole family a much-needed sense of normalcy.
“His greatest stress relief is working with his hands, and my favorite hobby is cooking,” says Lauren, “so [it] was a good thing to do together. … There’s something about planting a garden that requires innate hope: you don’t put a seed in the ground expecting that you won’t be there to take care of it.”
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With thousands of Texans joining the Mavromaras family, garden suppliers are struggling to keep pace. Sales at Austin’s Shoal Creek Nursery are up 65 percent over March of last year; in Houston, seed company Texas Ready sold six months of typical inventory in one week. The company sells heirloom “seed banks,” which can produce a year-round garden for up to thirty people.
“It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand,” says cofounder Lucinda Bailey, who quit her full-time job in early March to focus on selling seeds.
Likewise, Austin-based Trisha Sutton normally works to connect chefs and farmers through her organization Urban American Farmer, but pivoted to private garden consultations in the early days of the pandemic. After receiving multiple Instagram messages asking how to build a home garden, she started selling self-watering garden boxes and offering video consultations for novice gardeners.
“My whole goal is to make farming cool,” she says, noting how quickly the global pandemic revealed our alienation from original food sources.For Sutton, less access to genetically modified produce and a return to gardening could generate more market value for heirloom varieties and a deeper appreciation for locally grown food.
Pandemic gardeners are part of the “victory garden” tradition, which traces its roots to a government initiative to boost morale and promote self-sufficient food supplies during the World Wars. By 1944, roughly 20 million gardens nationwide produced an estimated 8 million tons of food, or 40 percent of the nation’s produce. A photo from Austin’s 1943 annual city report shows men gathering sweet potatoes from the city’s communal victory garden, while a how-to guide in the Refugio newspaper from the same year could easily have been written today.
“Everywhere you see plowed-up corner lots, neatly bedded gardens and busy seed stores,” the writer observed. “This year there will be millions of inexperienced gardeners puttering around the back yard.”
More recently, the original political undertones of the term “victory garden” have come to light. One key reason that victory gardens were so urgently needed during World War II was that tens of thousands of Japanese American farmers were locked in internment camps. With that history in mind, some advocates now prefer the term “co-op garden” to “victory garden,” Sutton says. She helped launch a new group called the Cooperative Gardens Commission, which ships free seeds to gardeners nationwide and encourages people from diverse communities to start their own plots. “We’re trying to move the conversation into a much more diverse population, using visuals of co-op gardens from every background,” she says.
Beyond seeds, the group provides ongoing resources and community for gardeners across the country. Sutton hopes these larger and small-scale gardening initiatives will reconnect people not only to their food but to each other. “We need our neighbors because you’re going to have better luck [getting tips] from people using the same soil,” she says. “And if you’re like me and didn’t grow up in Texas eating eggplant and okra, you need people who know how to cook those things in different ways.”
Even if the trend dies down after the pandemic, she says, “I think those relationships will continue and those connections will remain, and that’s important.”
As for the Mavromaras family, Marco was able to rejoin his wife and kids at home after the number of new coronavirus cases in San Angelo started to decline in early May. The family celebrated his return by enjoying dinner together inside, cuddling on the couch while watching Jurassic Park. Squashes and cucumbers have already sprouted in their garden, with peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, okra, and tomatoes on the way.
“We’re out there every day,” says Lauren, praising her sons for their help with daily watering and weeding in their matching Superman garden gloves. “It’s been really interesting to watch the full life cycle of this project come to fruition … Seeing that so much good can come from something so little is a continual reminder to find life in the midst of crisis.”
Below, we share four simple tips for beginner gardeners.
Lower your expectations. “You’re going to kill more than you keep alive, so don’t feel like you have a black thumb,” says artist Sam Jacobson, an Austin backyard gardener.
Sun and shade are key. Choose a sunny spot for your garden bed, since most vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight per day. If your yard gets less light, leafy greens and some root veggies, such as beets, can still do well. Container gardens are a mobile, low-maintenance option, ideal for troubleshooting sun exposure throughout the year.
Prepare for guests. Hungry visitors to your garden will likely include mites, beetles, squirrels, birds, and—if you’re in a suburban or rural area—deer. Not all bugs are pests, so while organic pesticides, fences, and netting can be good defenses, Trisha Sutton also suggests handpicking as an alternative. Aphids are an especially common threat with a fun solution: you can unleash an army of ladybugs to eat them.
- Get local. Plants that flourish in hot, swampy Houston are unlikely to thrive in the cooler, rocky Hill Country. Ask staff at your local nursery what’s best for your area, or plug in your zip code on the National Gardening Association website for regional tips and planting calendars.