You can do this, Chicago. Credit: Kelly Neil / UNSPLASH

COVID-19 has struck Illinois in force just as the spring gardening season is starting. If you’re a gardener in Chicago, you’ve probably already ordered and started germinating your seeds, plotted your now-dormant backyard or balcony plot (or pots), and made a wish list of seedlings you’d like to buy from garden centers and the various community plant sales scheduled to begin in May (see below). 

If you’re not a gardener, you might be thinking about becoming one. You can’t grow toilet paper, but you can grow your own food. If you aren’t thinking of gardening, you should, if only because it will give you something rewarding and productive to do.* Right now food insecurity is an (anxious) state of mind, so please don’t hoard. Growing your own food yields many good things besides the food. There’s nothing more meditative and peaceful than spending a summer watching your own basil plant sprout and flourish.

I have yet to hear from the city or state whether garden centers and community plant sales will be considered essential businesses and be allowed to sell the millions of seedlings now coming up in commercial greenhouses, but many passages in Governor Pritzker’s executive order indicate that they all are. But it’s all uncertain. I know one garden center that has closed. I know another that plans to stay open. The Chicago Park District has closed all its fieldhouses and playgrounds, but a representative tells me that May plant sales at Kilbourn and Garfield Park have not been cancelled.

During World War II a massive worldwide gardening campaign known as Victory Gardens provided food security for millions of people during disruptions to the supply chain. Chicago was a leader in that movement. And it could be again.

I talked with a pair of gardening experts about why home and community gardening is more important now than ever, and what they had to say is encouraging. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

LaManda Joy is an Illinois Extension master gardener, founder of the Peterson Garden Project, and the owner of City Grange garden center in Lincoln Square, and a new location in Beverly opening (hopefully) this spring. She’s the author of Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook and Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland (with Teresa Gale), and has lectured on the topic of Victory Gardens at the Library of Congress.

Reader: What were Victory Gardens and what was their historical impact in Chicago?

LaManda Joy: People have been growing their own food in times of crisis since agriculture was invented. But Victory Gardens, under that name, happened in WWI and WWII all over the world. 

Chicago, during WWII, due to great forethought, collaboration, and coordination, led the nation in the Victory Garden movement. In 1942, organizers were able to recruit and educate upwards of 300,000 new gardeners to grow their own food in an incredibly short amount of time. Many people think of Victory Gardens as something that was “nice to do” for people on the homefront (which I’m sure it was—gardening has many benefits beyond food) but, in reality, those vegetable gardens supplemented food shortages and rationing due to the heavy burden the war effort was making on global supply chains. 

Why is this a good idea to revisit in general?

I’ve spent the past decade teaching people how to grow their own food in pop-up victory gardens with the Peterson Garden Project (PGP). We’ve had thousands of people go through the program, and the results for the individuals and the communities have been incredible. Food grown, yes (almost a quarter million pounds), but the friendships, community, stress relief. There’s a quote that I use in my book by Geoff Lawton (a famous permaculturalist), “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.” And I think it is so true. 

Why is it a good time now during a pandemic?

The last tragic circumstance that America had to deal with like this . . . was WWII, and what did we do? We did victory gardens, so I’ve been like ‘maybe this is the moment I was born for.’ I’ve been studying this and speaking and writing books about it and living it and I really think we could, very quickly, with the right resources, teach 300,000 or more people how to grow food at home this year. 

I think if we want to look back at this experience and not have it be the shitshow sorrow of our lives, gardening can help us all band together and do something good, feed ourselves, feel better, have something to do.

I think a lot of people are gonna want to garden either because they’re scared about the food supply, from the apocalypse end of the spectrum, or they just feel like they’re gonna be home. Clearly people are concerned about food, as we can see from recent hoarding situations. But the sense of doing something important, stress relief, etc., is more important than ever right now.

What could a revived victory garden push look like?

Much like it did in WWII—except with different outreach tools. 

  • Engage people that have spaces to garden and provide education and materials relevant to their growing conditions.
  • Organize the people with food-growing knowledge and deploy them in their communities.
  • Have an ongoing campaign of support with media.

Last year, before we opened City Grange, we were working on this program called the Great Grow Along where people would buy these kits and we would teach them how to grow them. It didn’t happen because we didn’t have an audience yet. I’ve updated the website and next week I really want to promote that. This will be one of the tactics: the idea being that we have a website where if you know how to garden, you sign up with your block number, not your address. And if you want to garden you sign up with your block number, and we can match people up—because you learn to garden best with somebody else. 

The other would be to set up a depot to get stuff out. If we could get it underwritten, that would be great. City Grange is opening in Beverly, so we’d have one on the south side, we have one on the north side. Maybe open one in the middle in Back of the Yards or something, so the supplies are available for people—and then coordinate the supply chain so all the needed supplies can be provided. Get all the community gardens where people are already growing food and the 23,000 people we taught through PGP and get them engaged, and then away we go. It seems pretty simple to me.

Should plant sales be allowed to proceed as an essential business under the government shelter-in-place order?

The timing of the shelter-in-place order makes food-plant access the most essential business in my opinion. We’ll soon be at the point where it’s time for people to start planting all sorts of gardens—spring doesn’t wait. And if there is any concern about supply-chain disruption in the coming months, people need to start gardening now.

What can people do right now to get started?

Start to think about where they can garden. If you have a yard, go stand outside. Figure out where the sunniest spot is. When it comes time to create raised beds, there’re a lot of ways to do it. You can build a wooden raised bed, you can build something out of cinderblocks. You can do in-ground gardening, although I like to recommend gardening with fresh soil in the city just because [of potential contamination by] lead-based paint and stuff like that.

What seeds can you put directly in the ground?

It’s still a little cold out for direct seeding without some sort of covering, but some of the earliest, and easiest, plants that can be grown directly are radishes, lettuces, spinach, arugula, sorrel. 

What seeds are still worth starting?

Just buying a start (a young plant) is better for new gardeners. There’s a little art form to getting really healthy seedlings. Anybody can get something to germinate. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a healthy seedling.

If you’re going to start seeds indoors, it should happen right now. Generally what we call “hot crops” (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc.) should be started indoors eight weeks before the “last frost date” (the last average day we can get a hard frost which, for Chicago, is between May 1 to 10). These plants also like to be planted when soil temps are warmer so, depending on the weather, you may not want to put them into your garden until later in May, so you could have a few more weeks to get those healthy seedlings going inside.

What are good resources for seed starting?

We have a blog at that explains it all, but I would encourage any new gardener to find educational resources based on local sources [see below]. I’ve seen it many times—a new gardener finds a blog they like from a gardener in California and the timing and information is way off for a Chicago gardener to follow successfully.

What’s the plan for the spring PGP fundraising sale? Can it happen? Say with curbside service, delivery, online ordering?

Everything is so up in the air right now, so we’re not hopeful for the Peterson Garden Project pop-up sale this year. But for City Grange we are planning to make all our certified organic seedlings (in plastic-free pots!) available online this week so people can have something fun to think about while they’re staying home. It is a really stellar curated collection. We’ll offer a code so people who want to support PGP can include that at checkout, and a portion of the proceeds will go to PGP.

If we sell through that batch of stuff, I have other growers lined up to make sure we can get plant material in and out to people as soon as it’s ready. We’re gonna think of City Grange as a depot. We’re gonna have the stuff. It might not be pretty, but we’re really gonna focus on getting soil out to people; organic stuff, raised beds, other ways people can pot and grow small things if they’re on a balcony, like a root pot. We have these really cool metal raised beds that can go under a window or a balcony. We’re really going to be pushing that just so people have what they need to grow some food and not freak out.

We’re also going to have talk-to-an expert online sessions. So we can sit at a desk but the person can be with their phone if they want to show us around: “I’d like a plant here. What do you think of the light?” We’re calling it “An Hour with an Expert.” There’s a fee for it, so we can help keep our hardworking staff employed, but if they decide to buy product or do landscaping services or decide to take our advice for what they should plant veggie-wise, we can give them a gift certificate or we can deliver it to them if things are still weird. 

Breanne Heath managed the Peterson Garden Project’s community gardens for five years before taking a job with the Chicago Park District. She’s a manager for the district’s gardening programs, including Community Gardens in the Parks, Washington Harvest Garden, and the Community Roots Demonstration Garden, and provides support for Kilbourn Park’s Organic Greenhouse plant sale.

Breanne Heath: It’s kind of nice that this is the start of the growing season. This is the perfect time to get started. With unemployment rates going up I think there’s going to be more of a focus on sharing resources and doing things that don’t cost a lot money: sharing seeds, tools, knowledge, labor, building community. It’s a grounding thing to be able to grow your own food and be able to prepare meals from food that either you or your neighbors grew. 

Should community plant sales be considered essential businesses?

I think they should be considered essential, especially because people can use benefits like the LINK card in Illinois. They can use that to purchase seeds and seedling, so I consider that essential for food sovereignty. So plant sales and gardening centers selling edible plants should be able to stay open. 

With those, the bigger concern is the gathering of a large amount of people. Those are things to think through in terms of logistics. Would there be timed entries? Smaller groups of shoppers? Would there be a self-service aspect? 

Where are the best places to turn to for help getting started?

There is a lot of information online as far as blogs, how-to videos, a good amount of stuff for people that want to get started. It ranges from beginners to more experienced gardeners. 

But a lot of online sources are just garbage. It’s good to lean on your community and find people that have experience with growing. Because there are always things that are a bit lost when you’re watching a video or reading something that are really great for learning in person in a class. But since we can’t do that right now, it’s good just chatting with a friend or a neighbor that you trust that can explain some of those things that are a little bit difficult to navigate. 

It’s really not too late to start many seeds. People can still seed, even things like broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, things like that. I would recommend seeding, especially for people growing more for making the bulk of their meals: dried beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots. I’m seeding onions this week, just starting sweet potato slips this week. These are things that take a good amount of time to grow but don’t require a lot of hands-on care the way that some other fruits and vegetables might.

Don’t be afraid to get started. A lot of times with new gardeners there’s this fear of doing something wrong or letting something die. I’m a really experienced gardener. I’ve been doing this for a long time. And I’m pretty good at it, but I’ve also killed a lot of plants. It’s just one of those things you learn from every time you do something, depending on the growing season, depending on when you started a seed. It’s one of those things that you’re gonna learn more from doing. People shouldn’t be afraid to just give it a try.

How are the plants looking at the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse?

I think they look great. They’re right on schedule. The weather has been perfect for starting seedlings right now, but my main function is to oversee the community gardens in the parks. It’s nice that we have all this parkland where community groups can come together and just garden, whether they’re growing vegetables or doing something to beautify their parks. We have about 80 registered groups doing that in the city parks. 

I think this is exactly what people are looking for right now.

Joy and Heath recommended the following online garden resources:

Planning tools and calculators, instructional videos, Ask A Grower

Great source of FAQs, how-tos, monthly gardening checklists

Videos covering a range of topics, including drip irrigation installation

University of Illinois Extension Gardening Resources

Free online vegetable gardening classes from Oregon State University’s Master Gardener course


Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland, by Teresa Gale and LaManda Joy

The Garden Primer, by Barbara Damrosch

The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, by Tanya Denckla Cobb

Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook, by LaManda Joy

The Speedy Vegetable Garden, by Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz (great for growing indoors and in very small spaces)

Vegetables (Rodale’s Home Gardening Library), edited by Anne M. Halpin

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, by Edward C. Smith

Plant sales and community garden groups:

City Grange

Community Gardens in the Parks:
This program provides community groups and neighbors an opportunity to establish gardens on parkland. Community gardens range from allotment-style raised beds for growing food to ornamental beds for beautifying the parks.

Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory Annual Plant Sale, order online, curbside pickup, April 7–26

Garfield Park Conservatory Annual Seedling Sale, May 9

Hyde Park Garden Fair, May 15 and 16

Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse Plant Sale, May 16 and 17

Wicker Park Plant Sale May 9 and 10

Peterson Garden Project

*But please continue to order food from restaurants.   v