For the record, Barbara Gibson is not a gardener.
“I like urban things,” she says. “I’ve never had a garden. I’ve never wanted a garden. I’m 66 years old and I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever want a garden.”
Yet somehow she now shares her downtown Santa Cruz condo with cucumbers, peas, beets, spinach and tomatoes—though she doesn’t even eat tomatoes—all of it “on the vine.”
How did this happen? As is the case with many surprise developments in 2020, the culprit was Covid-19.
In March, when the state issued its first shelter-in-place orders, Barbara’s 26-year-old son Jesse moved in with her. It was Jesse who insisted that she grow her own food, as insurance against the spread of the virus and potential food shortages.
Barbara Gibson’s response was to make it clear that she had zero interest in watering or weeding.
“I don’t remember ever saying yes to this at any point,” she says. “But every time I said no, some new plants would appear. Then it was, ‘OK, this is fine. Now stop.’”
However, she raised a son who didn’t take no for an answer. Despite his mother’s resistance, Jesse designed and built an elaborate system that allowed him to take the best advantage of the limited space his mom’s condo afforded. He set up a system to water plants on an upstairs deck that would then drip down on plants growing on the downstairs patio. He planted tomatoes, allowing the neighbors to share in the bounty.
“It’s like a victory garden for someone who doesn’t have a yard,” Gibson says with a laugh.
The “victory garden” is a notion that dates back 100 years to the American entry into World War I, when the U.S. government launched a public campaign to get Americans to embrace gardening.
The idea sprouted from the fear that the war might negatively affect the nation’s food supply. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said, “Food will win the war.” There was even a federal program to encourage children’s interest in gardening called the United States School Garden Army.
Today, the victory garden concept—which became even more popular in World War II—is being quietly refashioned as the “pandemic garden” in the wake of Covid-19. Even without a government-funded campaign, many Americans—including some Santa Cruzans—responded to the pandemic with an impulse to plant a garden, including many who had never done it before.
Santa Cruz’s Helen Behar, for example, had had a couple of bad “black thumb” experiences with tomatoes in her life. But, like Gibson, she also had a son who sounded the alarm when shelter-in-place went into effect.
“My son was, like, ‘Mom, you have to get a 50-pound bag of rice and a 50-pound bag of beans,’” Behar says.
That prompted her to follow through on an idea that she had already been entertaining: Why not give gardening another try? She didn’t have a lot of space to work with, just a small patio. She bought a few starter plants, which were relatively hard to come by in the early days of the pandemic, and enlisted friends with more gardening experience for advice. And then she planted herbs, kale, collards, squash, eggplant and tomatoes.
It was her first experience with gardening success. “I’m loving it,” she says. “It brought out a real nurturing with me. The mothering part was there for me, transferred to my little starter babies.”
Artist Angela Gleason never had much time or patience for gardening either, nor had she a good track record. She grew succulents exactly because they required next to no care. But she caught the pandemic-garden fever as well. She found a few stackable plastic boxes that she used for raised beds and then planted cucumbers, tomatoes, and other goodies.
“I was totally surprised by how huge everything got and how fast it all went,” says Gleason, who grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a man committed to gardening. Her father worked seven days a week to support a large family, but still planted and maintained a big garden. “My job was harvesting,” she says, “going out and pick a leaf or two for salad. Now I’m doing that again.”
Santa Cruzan Randie Silverstein was raised in the Bronx, where her mother grew tomatoes on the fire escape. She and her husband Steve had not done much gardening until the pandemic. But Steve is a retired E.R. doctor, and he was particularly quick to react to the threat of Covid-19.
“He started talking about this pandemic in January,” she says. “Every time he would say something (about the spread of the virus), we’d see it a week later on the national news. So I looked at him and said, ‘Do we need to start growing our own food?’”
Randie Silverstein then went to work building a series of raised beds on wheels. By mid-April, her raised beds were planted with a wide variety of vegetables. “We’ll have lettuce until the cows come home, basically.”
For Michelle McDougall, her pandemic garden has become symbolic of a special moment in her family’s life. McDougall, a teacher at Linscott Charter School in Watsonville, had planted small gardens with her husband Chris in the past. But 2020 brought about a dramatic new commitment to gardening.
On the morning after her school closed due to Covid-19, Michelle cleaned out an old shed, found a seed starting kit that may have been 20 years old or more, and bought some seeds. The McDougalls live in Aromas with their son and daughter, 13 and 11 respectively. Everyone participates in the upkeep of the garden, which includes potatoes, strawberries, corn, zucchini, onions, snap peas, asparagus and more.
Michelle has been doing her teaching duties from home since shelter-in-place, and Chris has seen his workload drop by half. But the McDougalls have been using the time to recalibrate their lives, reorienting their passions and values to their home life.
“One of the things that the last three months have taught us,” she says, “is how much we miss the things we really value, reading stories and playing board games with the kids. This whole thing has made us by force slow down. I feel like I wouldn’t wish this time to come. I would not choose it. But for the last few years, I’ve wanted to put the brakes on, to slow down, to be with the kids as they grow up. And now, literally, here it is.
“I don’t want to go back to the way things were before,” she says. “Even if we go back to working full-time, there’s so much I’d like to cut out of my life to make room for down time with the kids, to make room for a garden, to make room for my values, all those things that get crowded out by the things you feel you have to do.”