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Master Gardeners Grow Interest Through Victory Garden Series
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 06/25/2020

During the early to mid-1900s, it was commonplace for families to have a garden in their backyard, not just as a means to grow their food, but also to show their patriotism by providing their excess harvest to war efforts.

In the postwar era, interest in these "Victory Gardens" waned as life returned to normal and the food supply strengthened. However, home gardening is enjoying a resurgence of late -- especially in response to the coronavirus pandemic -- and the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners are wasting no time in nurturing its comeback.

"The trend to grow your own food has had an uptick in recent years but has taken off during this time of COVID-19," said Valerie Sesler, area Master Gardener coordinator. "There are many reasons why people want to grow their food, including the desire to have high-quality produce that is as free of pesticides as possible. Most recently, though, people are at home and are looking for meaningful things to do with their time."

Sesler explained that during World War I, Victory Gardens originated when farmers were recruited into military service, thereby causing a severe food shortage. These gardens reemerged during World War II for the same reasons. "In 1943, almost 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. were grown in home gardens," she said.

When stay-at-home orders were put in place in Pennsylvania in March, the Master Gardeners suspected there would be a renewed interest in information about home gardens -- vegetable gardens, in particular -- and the "Victory Garden Reinvented" webinar series was born.

The 10-session series began in April but can be viewed at any time by visiting the Penn State Extension website at extension.psu.edu/victory-garden-reinvented-series. The webinars cover the basics of home vegetable gardening, as well as newer growing methods including no-till gardening, integrated pest management, the use of cover crops and row covers, and container gardening.

Jo MerrellJo Merrell, of Centre County, a volunteer with Penn State Extension Master Gardeners, supports renewed interest in Victory Gardens. IMAGE: NANCY KNAUSS In addition to popularly grown vegetables, fruit crops and some specialty vegetables also were highlighted.

"We wanted to make sure that beginner gardeners, along with more experienced gardeners, would be exposed to quality, research-based information that they then could use themselves in their home gardens," Sesler said.

Presenters are horticulture extension educators and experienced Master Gardeners who have strong backgrounds in raising specific crops.

"Some of the instructors grew up helping their parents in the vegetable garden, and others are involved in commercial and organic growing operations," said Sesler.

More than 3,200 people -- in 44 states and seven Canadian provinces -- registered for the series, which now is being translated into Spanish.

Among those victory gardeners is first-time gardener Andrea Russo, a summer resident of Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania, who learned about the program from the Clymer Library when searching online for a book her son needed for school.

"I was drawn to the program because of the course listing, which indicated a step-by-step start from the very beginning," said Russo, who is tending to her seedlings of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cucumbers and more. "I am enjoying the series thus far, and clearly the Master Gardeners are masters."

While not new to gardening, Fritz Mitnick, of Allegheny County, decided to register for the series to stay busy during quarantine and to glean information on new techniques.

"My father was a farmer who grew and sold vegetables, and in high school, I ran a produce stand on a family farm," said Mitnick. "At the start of the series, I thought I should be teaching some of the classes, but I learned something new from every weekly session."

Mitnick is sharing her knowledge with friends who are growing food crops for the first time. "I gave them basic advice to get them started and encouraged them to view the webinar series," she said. "I enjoyed each episode and am thankful for all the hard work required to present the programs."

Sesler said the Master Gardeners are pleased with response to the program and are optimistic that Victory Gardens are here to stay.

"The benefits of gardening are innumerable," she said. "I believe this is true for most gardeners. It is a way to get needed physical exercise, and it also has a huge impact on mental well-being. I find going outside, enjoying the sunshine and pulling a few weeds to be a very cathartic experience."

Currently, 3,165 Master Gardener volunteers in Pennsylvania support Penn State Extension's educational programs in consumer horticulture. They help extension better serve the home-gardening public by answering questions, speaking to groups, maintaining demonstration gardens, assisting in Penn State pollinator research and participating in many other projects.

More information is available on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener.

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