Worried about COVID-19? Plant a ‘Victory Garden’

Lisa Smedman decided to expand her garden and turn it into a Victory Garden during the pandemic

Lisa Smedman started worrying about COVID-19 earlier than many Canadians — when China first locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, in a desperate bid to curb the spread of the virus. 

When the first few coronavirus cases popped up in Canada, an idea began germinating in her head. She already had a garden so why not expand it and turn it into ‘Victory Garden.’ She suggests others consider doing the same.

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Victory Gardens were encouraged beginning in World War I, but more so in World War II, so that during times of food rationing, people would grow crops to supplement their needs.

“Victory Gardens were much more of a thing in World War II. They were actively encouraged by the governments of the day in Britain, Canada, all the Commonwealth countries — [the] United States as well. Each of those governments encouraged urban people to grow as much of their own food as possible,” Smedman said.

He Plants for Victory, , provided by the National Film Board of Canada

That was during an era of family farms and life was much less urban than it is today, but the government recognized there was unused space that could be turned over to food production. People's backyards, some sports fields and some community parks were turned into plots, which people either tended individually or joined with their neighbours to work on.

Smedman, a college instructor, writer and game designer, has two boys and lives in Burkeville, where bungalows were built in 1941 as wartime housing for workers at the Boeing aircraft factory on Sea Island. The original homes were built at a time when Victory Gardens were becoming popular. 

While Smedman, who describes herself as an amateur gardener, was beginning to plan her own garden this season, she reflected on the larger repercussions of coronavirus and government-mandated essential services such as food production and food transportation.

“That got me thinking about food and what if that food supply was disrupted? Where would somebody who lives in a very urban environment like myself turn to for food?,” she said.

“Obviously, I'm not going to be able to grow enough food to support myself and my family. I have a typical plot of suburban land. What I can do is ensure that I have fresh produce throughout the summer.”

A British poster from World War II encouraging people to plan Victory Gardens.
A British poster from World War II encouraging people to plan Victory Gardens.

Smedman’s property measures about 50 by 130 feet. Last year, she had six garden beds, which she doubled to 12 this year, with help from her tenant Maurice Grela.

The beds range from 4x8 to 6x10 feet in size, and have wooden borders of about four to six inches tall, with dirt inside. 

“I've built several trellises out of scrap lumber — I cut up boards from pallets that were scrap from a house that's being built next door. [I] also recycled some old fence posts from another neighbour's torn-down fence to build edges for garden beds. I'm also using bamboo poles, cut from my garden, as garden posts to support the corn, sunflowers, etc.,” Smedman told the Courier.

All the beds were built on what used to be lawn in both the back and front yard of her house. The soil in Richmond, meanwhile, is very good for gardening.

“To begin with, I'm very fortunate in that the ground is very easy to dig, very soft [with] very rich, fertile soil. I just wanted to raise it up a little bit and give it sort of a bit of a border,” she said.

Smedman is planting lettuce, spinach, arugula, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, sunflowers, corn, beans, peas, butternut squash, leeks, bok choy, beets, pumpkins, which her son likes for Halloween, and various herbs, this year. She’s also going to take a crack at growing eggplant for the first time. 

Seeds Lisa Smedman purchased for her garden.
Seeds Lisa Smedman purchased for her garden.

Fruit is on her gardening agenda as well. In previous years, she established a strawberry patch, raspberry bush, blueberry bush, two apple trees, which are still small, and a grape vine. This year, she added two more blueberry bushes, another grape vine, which she'll train along the railing of her back deck, and a plum tree. It’s a sapling dug out of a neighbour's yard.

Smedman expects the fresh fruits and vegetables will supplement her family’s diet and make it so they’re not as reliant on stores or need to leave their home to shop as often.

“My biggest challenge was my cats, who thought I'd built them yet more litter boxes. And my dogs, who also enjoy digging. Plastic mesh fencing — the ugly orange stuff used to fence off construction sites — stretched over the beds, is a deterrent until the plants grow,” she told the Courier.

A 1943 photo of a Victory Garden in Vancouver from City of Vancouver Archives, which was captioned,
A 1943 photo of a Victory Garden in Vancouver from City of Vancouver Archives, which was captioned, 'BC Telephone victory garden.' CVA 586-1545

Smedman also belongs to a neighbourhood Facebook group in Burkeville where she posted about her Victory Garden and encouraged other members to follow suit. 

They have been “enthusiastic” about the idea, she said.

”My neighbours are getting keen and a few of them have said they want to start planting things as well — even neighbours who have never planted anything in the way of a vegetable,” Smedman said.

Tenant Maurice Grela helping with the garden in Lisa Smedman's back yard.
Tenant Maurice Grela helping with the garden in Lisa Smedman's back yard.

Burkeville, she added, is a strong, tight-knit community and, in previous years, if neighbours with fruit trees didn't use all their fruit, she would harvest it. In one case, Smedman picked the remaining apples from a neighbour’s tree, made a jug of juice for him, and kept some jugs for herself.

“We've had those informal arrangements, but what we're hoping to do this fall is organize that a bit more. Basically, it's to get people organized to go pick [fruit from] all the trees, obviously with the owner's permission — places where people don't don't pick them, or have more than they could possibly use themselves, and distribute those through the neighbourhood,” Smedman said.

“We've even been thinking along the lines of a produce exchange day where everybody brings their extra. No money changes hands, but you just take what you need and other people take from your garden.”

While her neighbours have always shared resources, Smedman said being more organized about it was a natural next step.

As for how she’ll feel at the end of this growing season, she had this to say: “Well, assuming we're not still doing social distancing, I'll probably cook up a big super and have a bunch of my neighbours over.”

[Read a related story offering tips on home gardening HERE]

A 1943 photo of a Victory Garden in Vancouver from City of Vancouver Archives, which was captioned,
A 1943 photo of a Victory Garden in Vancouver from City of Vancouver Archives, which was captioned, 'BC Telephone victory garden.' CVA 586-1545


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