Last spring, Kristin McCartney, director of SNAP Education for West Virginia and public health specialist with West Virginia University Extension, launched the third year of the Grow This: WV campaign.
Every year, organizers for the program select a few crops and send the seeds out to new gardeners who sign up. Then, they walk the growers through the process of growing the crops. Usually, about 200 people sign up.
This year, it was 25,000.
West Virginia isn’t the only place where people flocked to gardens during the pandemic this year. Extension educators and community gardeners across the country have seen growing interest in home gardens, some calling them victory gardens. And some are saying that interest hasn’t slowed down over the summer and fall.
Julialynne Walker, garden manager for Bethany Bronzeville Community Garden, in Columbus, said she had almost as many people sign up for her late summer gardening course as for the one she taught in the spring, near the beginning of the pandemic. The more recent course focused on preparing for fall and thinking about gardening as a year-round option.
Many of the people she worked with in the spring were interested because of fears about food insecurity. That’s still a concern — if anything, even more so now than this spring, Walker said. People are still telling her that they want to be less dependent on the larger food system.
“Plus, it was such a novelty in the spring in terms of people being home,” Walker said. “People now see how they can incorporate food production into their regular schedule.”
Pam Bennett, director of the Ohio Master Gardener Volunteer Program and horticulture educator for Ohio State University Extension, said the industry has been pushing to keep people interested.
Ohio State University and the Ohio Department of Agriculture launched a new Ohio Victory Gardens program in August, which Bennett is also helping to lead. Part of the program involved a free seed giveaway, with another one planned for the spring. The first giveaway included seeds for fall and late summer crops.
“We had an incredible response for the seeds,” Bennett said. “People were just really interested in doing this.”
The program gave away more than 3,000 packets of seeds. Garden centers across the state and country are still saying this is one of the best years they’ve ever had, Bennett said. The amount of time people are spending at home, with many still working and learning from there, has contributed.
Over the summer, Walker ran a new Bronzeville Urban Growers program, where 14 families were given large bins, soil, seeds and seedlings to start learning how to garden. The program used bins to cut down on issues with weeds and bugs. Grants through The Columbus Foundation helped to cover costs. The program included site visits to two gardens, which were open to the public as well.
The program went well, though were was a learning curve. For one thing, some families weren’t quite sure when to harvest the produce at the beginning. One family ended up with huge radishes in their bins. After that, Walker was careful to make sure that families knew when to harvest their crops.
Some of the families are planning to keep growing in their bins, while others are ready to move on to growing in the ground. Walker hopes to keep working with the current families and add a new group to the program next year as well.
Though there were people starting to garden for the first time this year, a lot have had good growing seasons and successful harvests and storage, Bennett said.
“Many people had a really good growing season because they stayed home,” she added.
McCartney isn’t sure yet how harvest went for people in the Grow This: WV program, or how many people followed through on their gardening plans. She is still waiting on results from a survey her team sent out to people who signed up for the program this year.
“We’re curious to see if next year we get the same amount of interest as this year, depending on what’s going on with the world,” McCartney said.
If people continue to spend much of their time at home, Bennett believes that interest in gardening will be similar next year. If more things open up and more people stop working from home and start traveling more again, she expects that interest will drop — but maybe not by much.
“Once people try it … they tend to get hooked,” Bennett said.
Now that Grow This: WV has a greater reach — with more than 8,000 followers on Facebook — McCartney believes the campaign can help keep interest going. The program has expanded what it offers online this year.
“Gardening is something everyone wants to do in person, and that’s ideal, but it kind of forced us to be creative in how we provide education,” she said.
Walker said several of the other community gardens in her area are talking about expanding. Some new gardeners are working on plans to grow through the winter, or already thinking about the spring.
“There’s no end in sight,” Walker said.
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