Time to Start a Virus Victory Garden?

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The Community Garden in Old Trail, managed by Beverley Thierwachter, rents garden plots to any Albemarle County resident for a mere $20—but all plots have been snagged for this year.

“In this time of home isolation and other measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Piedmont Master Gardeners are encouraging local households to grow more of their own food,” announced a May 1 press release from the Piedmont Master Gardeners Association (PMG), a part of the Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Call it a ‘Virus Victory Garden.’”

“Like the wartime Victory Gardens of the past, the home vegetable garden today provides benefits we all need right now, including nutrition, physical activity, food safety, and the satisfaction of being more self-reliant,” said Pat Chadwick, a past president of PMG. “The growing season for most vegetable crops has arrived, so this is the ideal time to go outdoors and expand an existing edible garden or plant a new one. Whether it’s on an apartment patio or in a large backyard, an edible garden can be fun and rewarding.” A recent Daily Progress article also noted the return of the World War I-era victory garden concept, with Facebook groups such as Victory Garden 2020 and Victory Garden Over COVID-19 becoming popular. With job losses, a failing economy, and feared disruptions in the food supply chain caused by the pandemic, many Crozetians are planting vegetables, fruit, and herbs in a move toward self-sustainability. But recent cool weather and copious rains are also ideal for flower gardening. 

“When I moved to the Highlands I turned to gardening for birds and pollinators,” said Nancy-Elizabeth Nimmich on Nextdoor. “This year, I have a flat of veggie seedlings I started earlier in the month and will plant these instead of annual flowers for the pollinators—they will still have the shrubs and perennials.” Steph Earle of Yancey Mills agrees. “I started many varieties of veggies from seed this year in my tiny greenhouse…. I have been working on tilling the land and we have managed to plant a few rows of cool weather crops. Hoping to become mostly self-sustaining this summer.” Todd Edgerton of Old Trail is involving his family. “With my 10-year-old stuck at home, his spring project is to grow some food and flowers for his family. We snagged some cedar raised beds online, we have a rain barrel, and we are planning to make a photo documentary.”

Greenwood Gardens opened in the former Village Fruit Stand building in September 2019.

If you would like to join this trend, there are several great garden supply shopping options close by. These include Crozet Hardware, Blue Ridge Building Supply, Ivy Corner Garden Center, Greenwood Gardens on 250 (west of the I-64 interchange), and Milmont Greenhouses in Stuarts Draft. All of these are now offering advance ordering and contactless curbside pickup in some form. Unfortunately, Ivy Nursery is closed and not even doing curbside pickup. According to a sign on their closed entrance gate, their only business during the shutdown is “planting and landscape contracting,” 

“The seed packets have been flying out the door,” said Jeff Birckhead of Crozet Hardware on The Square. “We just placed our third order in the past month. Our seed racks and shelves of fertilizer are often empty. Live plants have been steady too. The garden supply market is definitely amped up this year. People are staying home and have more time to garden.” Crozet Hardware remains open to walk-in customers, but is also happy to prepare orders called in to 434-823-4381 and bring them out to your car when you arrive. They prefer not to take credit card payment over the phone, but you can pay with either cash or card when you pick up. Blue Ridge Building Supply, by contrast, is closed to walk-in traffic. You can still order your gardening supplies by calling 434-823-1387 and staff will deliver to your car. 

“Our entire business has changed in a matter of weeks” noted Beth Sobkowiak, manager of Ivy Corner Garden Center, which sells a wide variety of trees, flowers, vegetables, herbs, and garden decor. “Because families are at home now, it is a great time to garden, even if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Owned for 25 years by William Vlasis, Ivy Corner considers itself an open-air business, so walk-ins are welcome and the store is frequently disinfected. “We can’t keep vegetables, herbs, and seeds in stock, even with deliveries three times a week. It feels good to see young mothers come in with their children, learning together. Gardening and growing plants are good therapy for everyone in these uncertain times.” Ivy Corner now offers curbside service, with all staff wearing masks and gloves. Patrons can email their needs to [email protected] Staff will call you back to take your order, and then you can drive through and they will deliver the items to their car. “Patrons are also welcome to come after hours to stroll through the property and choose what they want. They can grab a wagon, put their name on it, and call the next morning to arrange payment and pickup,” Sobkowiak explained. When I asked about a possible return of the beautiful holiday lights that used to decorate their roof, her eyes sparkled. “It will be a surprise. Keep your eye to the sky this Christmas,” she advised.

The Ivy Corner is open for business, but is also offering advance ordering and curbside pickup.

Greenwood Gardens, opened in September, 2019 in the former Village Fruit Stand by Patsy Wallenborn and Connie Hicks, is also an open-air market. “We sell flowers, herbs, vegetables, unique gifts, cider, and whoopee pies by Key’s Cakes,” said Wallenborn. “We’ve been experiencing brisk sales during the shutdown.” They also offer curbside service in their large parking and drive-through area. Just call 434-981-5446 and tell them what you need. They are also on Facebook and Instagram. “Greenwood Gardens is my #1 place to check out when anything I’ve planted in the past does not bloom,” commented Sarah Beck of Parkside Village on Nextdoor. “I love this place,” commented one customer. “They are so artistic and eclectic.” See how many roosters you can find when you visit! 

Milmont Greenhouses in Stuarts Draft is a bit of a drive, but has extensive inventory and variety. They are taking orders and payment over the phone at 540-943-8408, and provide contactless pickup of plants, mulch, etc. to the trunk of your car. 

If you don’t have much space for gardening at home, some local residents have rented plots at the Old Trail Community Garden, a peaceful and meditative 50’ x 100’ space located behind the soccer field in Old Trail. Owned and managed by Albemarle County Parks & Recreation, it was part of Old Trail’s original proffer to the County of the Western Park and common area. 10’ x 10’ plots are available to rent for $20/year by any Albemarle County resident, with some smaller and larger plots available. Unfortunately, “all 39 plots have been rented for this summer,” said garden co-chair and master gardener Beverly Thierwechter. “Most years we are only 2/3 full. More people are gardening, and more are planting food crops than in the past.” 

Jeff Birckhead and Billy Staples of Crozet Hardware store report increased sales of seeds, plants, and soil/fertilizer. Photo: Clover Carroll.

“We are the first and only community garden in Albemarle County,” Thierwechter said proudly. “Our garden is all organic, with no synthetic additives or chemicals permitted. Access to the garden requires a significant walk from Brook View Drive, and crops may not be grown for sale. The County built and maintains the fence and locked gate, provides mulch, and fills the water tank; however, special COVID-19 rules put in place April 1 eliminate that service to prevent gardeners from sharing the spigot. This year, gardeners must use buckets to carry water from the spring beside the garden, wipe down the gate lock upon entering and leaving, and carry their tools in and out; the shed is locked so tools won’t be shared accidentally. “In normal times we would hold monthly Saturday work parties and fun group events like tomato tastings,” said co-chair Betsy Aronson. “But not now.” 

So if you’re ready to grab a shovel and start digging, the Wildlife Center of Virginia  recommends planting native plants that support the insects, birds, and wildlife that evolved alongside them in our area but are in decline due to loss of habitat, such as “trees that are fruit bearing, or nut or seed bearing. Flowering plants with pollen, and foliage plants with edible leaves, are all food sources that can be found in the wild, and things that you can incorporate into your garden” (WMRA 4/1/20). They recommend consulting the Virginia Native Plant Society www.vnps.org for tips on what to plant this spring. And try to protect the local watershed by avoiding the use of chemicals on both your garden and lawn!

If you wish to grow food crops, the Virginia Cooperative Extension offers downloadable publications on its Home Vegetable Gardening web page. Advice on vegetable gardening is also available from Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Horticulture Help Desk, staffed by Master Gardener volunteers. It can be reached at 434-872-4583 or [email protected] Virginia Cooperative Extension Albemarle-Charlottesville’s “Get Gardening” lessons with master gardeners on Facebook Live every Thursday at 2 p.m. deals with all kinds of gardening, as does Piedmont Master Gardeners’ new “Ask a Master Gardener” feature which answers commonly-asked questions and discusses emerging issues of interest to gardeners in Central Virginia. You don’t have to be a Facebook user, but can access this feature by simply clicking on the link in the green box at www.piedmontmastergardeners.org. 

“We hope homebound people in our community will take advantage of these resources and be inspired to grow a Victory Garden for our time,” Chadwick said. Or a pollinator garden of native flowers and shrubs to beautify your surroundings! 

Seed racks at Crozet Hardware. Photo: Clover Carroll

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