A couple of months ago, in the weeks just before the shit hit the fan, my wife and I sat down to plan for the coming Covid-19 pandemic. We’re both fortunate and unfortunate enough to live in Charleston, South Carolina, which sits smack in the middle of the crosswalk spanning Hurricane Alley so disaster planning is routine. We have evacuated our home four times in the past five years (and the one year we didn’t evacuate, we wished we had). I’m no doomsday prepper, but as a reporter who has covered wildfires, mudslides and lived through many big-ass storms, I’ve witnessed privation and Mother Nature’s cruelty.
But hurricanes come and go in a way that viruses and economic depressions do not. It was clear to my wife and me as Covid-19 spread that a trip to Costco and some storm shutters weren’t going to get it done from a practical or psychological perspective — preparedness is never as simple as stockpiling. So we decided to grow a “Coronavirus Victory Garden” with the help of our increasingly dirty kids.
The Victory Garden has a storied place in America’s mythology of self-sustainability and rugged individualism. The idea was popularized during World War I, when European farms became trench-lined combat zones and farmers were drafted into military service. Untouched by combat, Americans were called on to grow “War Gardens” to feed not only themselves, but their starving allies across the Atlantic. In 1917, Charles Pack, an American timber baron was tapped to organize the National War Garden Commission. His charge was essentially to return America to its agrarian roots by putting backyards, playgrounds, rooftops, city parks and vacant lots into service growing every kind of staple food. Civic organizations and chambers of commerce organized gardening seminars and clubs. The Federal Bureau of Education enlisted schoolkids to form the U.S. School Garden Army and become “soldiers of the soil.” By 1918, over 5 million gardens were planted, growing one and a half million quarts of canned fruits and veggies.
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According to Billy Styles, May 10 is the best time to get plants in the ground across much of the south. Planting days, of course, vary across the country. The best way to find out when you should plant is through a local agricultural extension agency.
Consider the soil before going seed wild. Not only does it need plenty of organic matter like manure and compost, soil needs insects, worms, sunlight, and airflow.“If I’m an ostrich and can look under the ground, I’d want it to look like Swiss cheese,” Billy says. “A living, breathing soil that can get oxygen, water, and root movement.”
Use organic mushroom compost, cow, and chicken manure. Billy has found heavy metal contamination in manure from factory-farmed cows.
Lay your rows down in the direction of the prevailing wind, so it will blow down rows rather than across them. Link your finger and hold it up. You know the trick.
Billy recommends planting chives and garlic, insect repellent plants, within six inches of the fruits and vegetables insects are most likely to attack. Basil repels insects from tomatoes. Marigolds work too. “It’s using plants to grow plants,” Styles says. They’re assisting when you’re not there.”
Want quick results? Billy suggests planting potatoes, which are very easy to grow from… potatoes. You just need a sunny spot, ‘eye-sprouting’ potatoes and rich soil. Cut a few square inches around the eyes to create new seedling. New potatoes will be ready to eat in around ten weeks. Mature potatoes, which can keep all winter in your root cellar for a month, will be ready in the fall.
Planters, particularly dark ones, can overheat your roots in direct sunlight. Surround them with other companion plants to keep off pests and keep them cool.