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Ready, set, grow: Victory gardens for the win!

  • 5 min to read
Ready, set, grow: Victory gardens for the win!

So you’ve been revving your engines to tackle your yard this growing season. And who can blame you? Home gardening has never looked so good before. You’ve got a little land, you’ve got a lot of ideas, but you don’t know where to start. We’ve got the answers. Here’s where your great expectations meet reality. Connecticut’s top-notch emerald-green thumbs guide you through the whole process and make gardening a cinch. From hopes and dreams to dirty deeds, we’ve got you covered. Let’s grow!

Do you take your produce for granted? Thinking that those trusty tomatoes and sumptuous strawberries are always going to be neatly lined up on the shelves of Stop & Shop, ready whenever you need them? The problem: What happens when they’re not? (Damn you, COVID-19!) And have you ever really thought about how far from the field those fruits and veggies had to travel before arriving on those shelves? Experts estimate some 1,500 miles — oh, the nutrients they’ve lost in the process! Perhaps it’s time for a victory garden.

Victory gardens were popularized during World War II, when more than 20 million of the seed-to-table gardens were planted. In fact, when food rationing began in 1942, the government itself encouraged those on the home front to plant gardens chock-a-block with fresh veggies, not only as a way to stretch their rations, but to free up crops to be sent to our boys overseas. Posters plastered from Greenwich to North Stonington, New Haven to Norfolk urged citizen soldiers to “Sow the Seeds of Victory,” “Dig for Victory,” and “Can all you Can,” and soon backyards and schools, parks and playgrounds were being taken over by legions of patriotic Americans wielding hoes.

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At the peak of the movement in 1943, more than two-thirds of U.S. households grew their own food — and were pretty darn good at it, producing a whopping 80 billion pounds of food, or 40 percent of the fresh produce eaten that year! Heck, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even planted a victory garden at the White House, while here in Connecticut, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Co. doled out permits that allowed those eager to make a contribution to the war effort to raise everything from beets to pole beans, parsley to parsnips by their tracks.

John Gradzik of New Haven is a champion of the modern victory-garden movement to know and grow our own food here in Connecticut. A beekeeper for the Elm City’s Swords into Plowshares with a background in culinary arts and a passion for World War II history, Gradzik grew up helping his grandfather in the garden and has always had an appreciation for purity of ingredients. His mission to promote victory gardens has received a significant boost in recent weeks, Gradzik says, with a “renaissance movement that has sprouted up in the wake of the coronavirus in support of self-sufficiency and food security.” Gradzik admins both a Facebook page (Connecticut Victory Gardens) and Instagram feed (@the_victory_gardener) in an effort to help new gardeners any way he can.

Truth be told, “as soon as a vegetable is picked it starts degrading, so the sooner you can eat it, the better tasting and the better for you it will be,” says Lance Frazon of John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds in Bantam, which, like most seed companies, has seen a marked increase in vegetable-seed sales this spring.

"In this time of uncertainty, gardening can be very therapeutic. You may be growing something, at the same time, the process is helping you grow."

“There’s simply no reason we should be trucking, flying and shipping food all over the country, if not the world,” says Simsbury’s Kris McCue, who leads the Hartford chapter of the Bionutrient Food Association. McCue also happens to be a major proponent of the grassroots Cooperative Gardens Commission, founded in mid-March to mobilize volunteers to share resources, advice and even seeds in order to encourage the masses to grow food for themselves and their communities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — and going forward. (Join in at coopgardens.org.) 

Here in Connecticut, victory gardening groups planting and harvesting for the greater good include the Newtown Victory Garden, founded in 2011, whose volunteers continue to harvest well over 2,800 pounds of veggies each season to donate to Newtown food pantries, and the Wilton Garden Club, whose Green Teens program maintains a garden at the Trackside Teen Center, with produce going to the Wilton Food Pantry.

An added bonus of all this time spent down to earth? “In this time of uncertainty, gardening can be very therapeutic,” says Pam Nobumoto, co-chair of the Wilton club’s youth-gardening committee. Gradzik, in turn, describes his many hours in the garden as both peaceful and nourishing. Adding that though “you may be growing something, at the same time, the process is helping you grow.”

Sounds like a victory to us.


Our experts share some proven-favorite seeds to consider planting in your victory garden.

Sugar Daddy snap pea

An easy-to-grow bush variety that gets just 3 feet tall (so no big ol’ trellis needed), Sugar Daddy is also the first truly “stringless” pea pod and boasts a growing season that lasts into October. Even better: The entire plant (shoots, tendrils, pods and all) is oh-so-sweet to eat. — Sandy Merrill, NE Seed, East Hartford

Straight Eight cucumber

Part of this fifth- and sixth-generation seed company’s heritage line, Straight Eight is at least 100 years old and likely grown in WWII-era gardens. The heavy producer is also extremely disease resistant. — Francesco D’Eugenio, The Charles C. Hart Seed Company, Wethersfield

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Danvers Half Long carrot

This tried-and-true heirloom variety developed in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1871, boasts tapered roots known to be crisp and sweet, and are excellent as keepers for winter soups and stews. — Lance Frazon, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, Bantam

Opalka paste tomato (organic)

A seed-shy Polish heirloom brought to Amsterdam, New York, around 1900, this top-notch producer wins taste competitions every year and is known to stand up well to the heat. — Roberta Bailey, Fedco Seeds, Clinton, Maine

Organic Dwarf Blue Vates kale

This blue-green, leafy, curly phenomenon goes to town all summer long, but is also extremely cold hardy (Fruition is all about organic, regionally adapted seeds) and can be harvested into winter. — Petra Page-Mann, Fruition Seeds, Naples, New York

Globo onion

This award-winning giant exhibition onion from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has a super sweet complex flavor with a spicy finish — perfect for eating raw or for cooking. — Staff pick, Heirloom Market at Comstock Ferre,Wethersfield

Cucamelon

Itty-bitty, bite-size cucamelons (Hudson Valley Seed Co. calls them Mexican Sour Gherkins, others, Mouse Melons), grow to be about the size of a grape, look like tiny watermelons and taste like a cucumber with a touch of lime. — Kelley Hangos-Carrano, Griffon Cottage Gardens, Monroe

Nasturtium “Phoenix”

These easy-to-grow edible flowers lend a spicy, peppery flavor to dishes and play a critical role in the victory garden by attracting pollinators and even beneficial insects. — Allison Barlow, Select Seeds Co., Union


Tips on the road to victory

Small packages

“If you dig up the whole ‘back forty,’ you will be overwhelmed,” says Carol Quish, a horticulturist with the UConn Home & Garden Education Center. “Start small and you can always grow from there.” 

You do you

“All that matters is that you grow what you enjoy,” says Kelley Hangos-Carrano of Griffon Cottage Gardens. “Grow things that mean something to you” (perhaps the tomato variety grandma always grew for her sauce); grow what you know your family will eat (perhaps basil for your favorite pesto recipe).

Think outside the plot

There’s no rule when it comes to victory gardening, says Wilton Garden Club’s Laurie Musilli. If you don’t have the space for a traditional plot, make the most of what you do have. Rectangular planters balanced on patio rails, container gardening with tubs of all sizes, a raised bed formed with hay bales, maybe even give vertical planting a go using some recycled pallets.

Teach to the test

“The most important thing you can do before planting a thing is test your soil,” Quish says. “Most vegetables need a soil pH around 6.5. However, because of our native rock, most Connecticut soil has a pH between 4.5 and 5.5.” UConn’s Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab routinely tests residents’ soil for a variety of major and minor plant nutrients, lead and pH.

All hands on deck

“When you play a part in taking care of something it always tastes better,” Hangos-Carrano says. “Gardening together not only teaches your kids where food comes from, it teaches them that when you nurture a plant it will in turn nurture you.”

Timing is everything

“Plants that reach harvest in under 120 days are considered short-season crops and those that take longer are long-season crops,” Quish explains. “Subtract the days to harvest (on seed packets) from the first fall frost date to find the last planting date.” Frost-date averages in Connecticut are May 15 for the last spring frost and Sept. 15 for the first fall frost.