Victory Gardens Are Making a Comeback—Here's How to Start Your Own Vegetable Garden

Grow a flourishing garden, without leaving the house.

As you may recall from high school history class, "victory gardens" first started in America during World War 1. In response to food shortages during the war, Americans were encouraged to begin growing their own food, and vegetable gardens popped up in backyards and at schools and public parks across the country. "In the U.S. in March of 1917, Charles Lathrop Pack began the National War Garden Commission—an organization to encourage 'war gardens' that might contribute to the Allied food supply and bring about victory," explains Lora Vogt, the curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial. "Gardening and agricultural support quickly became a way for Americans of all ages to both serve and show patriotism," she says. The campaign was incredibly successful. By 1918, more than 5 million new gardens had been planted in the U.S.

During the current coronavirus crisis, the concept of the victory garden appears to be making a comeback, and although the crisis at hand and the context is different, Vogt points out that there are economic facets underlying both. During WW1, the railroad lines prioritized transporting members of the military, leaving less railcars devoted to food shipment. "Through gardening, Americans were able to produce an estimated 1.45 million quarts of home canned food—providing for their own needs and alleviating supply lines for others," says Vogt.

Today, the homegrown vegetable garden is spiking in popularity once again. At a time when grocery shopping safely requires careful planning, some stores are selling out of basics, and unemployment rates are rising, gardening may help alleviate fears of food scarcity. Plus, with millions of Americans stuck at home, gardening can be a fulfilling and relaxing hobby that doesn't require leaving the house, and is enjoyed by both kids and adults. No matter if you have a large backyard or just a sunny windowsill to devote to the cause, here are some tips for starting your own vegetable garden at home.

How to Order Seeds (Without Leaving the House)

As we all try to avoid unnecessary trips to the store, online seed businesses are booming right now. While many gardeners would typically choose to start with nursery-grown seedlings, this year, many more people are purchasing seeds, since they can be mailed. "Essentially, panic buying officially came to the seed industry a few weeks ago, and as I am aware, all seed companies are experiencing the same thing presently; an interest that's increased by orders of magnitude," says Jack Whettam, sales and marketing manager at Hudson Valley Seed Co.

Luckily, there are plenty of places to order seeds online without stepping foot in a garden center, including Hudson Valley Seed Co and Burpee, plus many options on Etsy, such as the Plant Good Seed Company and SEEDVILLE USA. The one catch: because of unprecedented demand for seeds, almost all of these companies are currently experiencing delays or are putting a hold on new orders as they attempt to catch up.

Before you buy seeds, check your area's growing zone. Most seed sites will list which zones each plant can thrive in, so confirm that you're choosing seeds that are within your specific hardiness zone. As you patiently wait for your seeds to arrive, read on for some basic vegetable gardening tips from the pros.

When to Start Planting Outside

"The spring is the best time to plant vegetables," says Whettam, "and many can provide all summer long (like an indeterminate tomato or a cucumber plant), while others can be started in the spring and sown in successions throughout the year (like lettuce or root vegetables)." You'll want to wait until after the last frost date in your area (check by zip code here) and when there are enough hours of daylight. Once those two conditions are met, you'll know the ground is warm enough and there is enough sunlight to start planting outside.

How to Start Seeds Indoors

Even if it's not past your area's frost date yet, you can still get started planting seeds indoors, using what you have on hand. Egg cartons, muffin tins, and tin cans can all be used to start seeds. "As long as there is adequate drainage, enough space for a healthy root system, and importantly, that the chosen vessel isn't made of something that could leach toxins into the soil, then it can work fine!" says Whettam.

You'll want to follow the specific seed-starting instructions for the type of seeds you bought, but here's a general guide:

1. Make sure the containers have drainage holes.

2. If possible, plant your seeds in seed-starting mix, which typically doesn't contain soil. But if you can't get seed-starting mix in quarantine, soil can work, it just doesn't drain as well and may increase the chances of disease for the seedlings.

3. Plant the seedlings at the right depth—check the seed packet to make sure.

4. Place the containers in a warm area. The top of a refrigerator is a popular spot. (Note: But once seedlings emerge, you'll want to move them to a cooler, yet sunnier spot).

How to Transplant Seedlings

Once your seedlings are thriving, you'll need to transfer them to larger containers or plant them in soil outdoors. If you're considering a container vegetable garden, consult the Hudson Valley Seed Co's list of best vegetables and herbs for small spaces. These varieties are ideal for urban gardeners.

Don't have an outdoor space? Don't worry, even a sunny windowsill or kitchen counter can hold a thriving herb garden. Here are the seven easiest herbs to grow indoors.

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