In April, we were so starved for life and living that we saved a sprouted cooking onion, named it the Hope Onion, and grew it in a vase indoors where we could watch its pale roots get long and tangled. Meanwhile, The New York Times called us “scallion nation,” and people on the Internet thought we all should be victory gardeners again.
At the Fenway Victory Gardens on a recent Sunday in May, Brenda Velez, in overalls and a mask, was working her plot.
“I got my seeds ready,” Velez said. “I’m ready to go.”
There are real victory gardeners in Boston already — 405 of them, down on the Fens, tending 15-by-25-foot plots where their own onions have deep roots in the historic ground, where the radishes are up, the lilacs in bloom, and the resurrection in full swing.
Community gardens have been allowed to remain open during the shutdown, and this of course includes the Fenway Victory Gardens. Established in 1942, it is the nation’s oldest surviving war garden. On the original 7.5 acres along the Muddy River, just one block from Fenway Park, it endures.
During World War II, the Fenway Victory Gardens was one of 49 planted all over the city, including on Boston Common. A neighboring piece of land on the Fenway was even maintained as a “model victory garden” by the Globe, which published lengthy front-page articles about its progress.
Victory gardens famously produced 44 percent of Americans’ wartime fruits and vegetables. Some 2,600 families participated in Boston, 20 million nationwide, according to “To Dwell Is to Garden: A History of Boston’s Community Gardens” by Sam Bass Warner Jr.
“I can’t even tell you how exciting it is to be part of that [history],” said Velez, 54, a visual merchandiser who designs store displays and whom the pandemic has forced out of a job.
“I feel like this is another war, a different one. We’re still there [at the Victory Gardens]. We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “We’re still out there with Mother Earth, making the most of things.”
Americans have gardened through many of the great crises in our history, and those without their own land have planted on public property.
During the depression of the 1890s, Mayor Hazen Pingree created potato patch gardens for Detroit’s unemployed. In Boston in 1895, 52 men and two women each harvested some 20 to 55 bushels of potatoes on land the Industrial Aid Society for the Prevention of Pauperism secured, Warner wrote. Similar efforts were restarted during the Great Depression — relief gardens, thrift gardens.
Unlike the victory gardens of World Wars I and II, these gardens are little known today. Poverty is light on propaganda, heavy on potatoes.
Many temporary gardens — glorified and not — simply vanished after the time of need. Not on the Fens, where gardeners adapted to peacetime, mounting a successful campaign at the mayor’s office and shifting production from food to flowers.
“As far as is known, there is no identical project in this country,” late cofounder Richard D. Parker wrote in a typescript preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “It is indeed an outstanding privilege to have a garden in The Fenway.”
Many of today’s gardeners live nearby, in small homes made even smaller by stay-at-home advisories. Christine Nelson, 34, a pharmacist, told me her victory garden is actually bigger than the Fenway apartment she shares with her husband.
Walking the Victory Gardens’ narrow, wood-chipped lanes is an intimate affair. One peers not into conventional community garden plots, but into the vast outdoor living rooms of the little-apartment people. There are couches and benches and chairs, and lawns as smooth as area rugs. Shiny bric-a-brac catching the thin, early morning sun. A statue of Jizo, the Japanese splinter-removing god. All kinds of things, a vast collection — every gardener’s own mark.
“A lot of people refer to it as a large backyard,” said Gerald Cooper, 77, who is keeping busy building a brick patio in the back of the plot he’s had for more than 20 years.
“I’m there every day, five or six hours at least. Even when there’s rain, I’ll think about going. I usually debate about whether to go down there in the rain or stay in the apartment and clean it up,” he said. “I usually go down there in the rain.”
The gardens are not unchanged. Veterans say there’s a kind of uneasiness now, with old friends and neighbors in masks, 6 feet or more away. Some are converting their plots back to their original purpose.
“Before the pandemic we had a lot of gardeners that were raising perennials, flowers, and some herbs,” said Elizabeth Bertolozzi, Fenway Victory Gardens president. “[Now] people are really determined to do some additional vegetable gardening, because every little bit helps and they’re just concerned that maybe they could put their plots to better use.”
Rick Richter, vice president of the Victory Gardens, is planting an all-vegetable crop for the first time. He’s got 150 tomato plants started in his small apartment.
“I’ve got grow lights all over the place and plants all over,” Richter, 64, explained from home. “It’s going to be a little jungle in here, so I’m really hoping for some warm weather pretty soon.”
The Trustees of Reservations, which manages 56 Boston community gardens (although not the Fenway Victory Gardens, a nonprofit on city land), reports a surge in requests for plots this spring. Applications have doubled. And even in good times, there are not enough plots to meet demand.
“The major role of food access is of course highlighted in this economically insecure time,” said Michelle de Lima, who is the engagement manager for The Trustees’ community gardens. “[But] I don’t think realistically the majority of those people are [gardening] because they have no other way to get food. I think they’re doing it because they’re going a little crazy and they need something positive and hopeful in their lives.”
Zachary Nowak, a historian of urban agriculture and a Harvard College fellow, agreed.
“As far as victory gardens becoming the source of everyone’s food, I don’t know,” he said. “But those people … who just grow flowers and flowering bushes … are giving a much more important gift to the rest of us in the city — and that’s just hope, straight up.”
Scott Zak is one such victory gardener. The 58-year-old Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center nurse grows only flowers in the sunbaked plot he’s had for 25 years: marigolds, zinnias, nasturtiums, and three colors of statice: purple, white, and blue.
He works in the organ transplant unit, so he cannot bring flowers into the hospital, but sometimes he’ll take pictures for his patients.
He said that even in a non-COVID-19 unit, the situation at Beth Israel is very tense.
“It’s horrible. Everything you see on TV is accurate,” he reported. “We were having a meeting among nurses and other staff members — kind of, like, get in touch of how we’re dealing with stress — and the social worker says, ‘Does anyone have any ways of dealing with stress?’ Everyone kind of looked at each other, like, not really, you know, just grin and bear it. And then one of the nurses said, ‘Well, Scott, you have your garden, don’t you?’ ”
Gardens created for war have become a refuge from a new plague and new problems.
“It doesn’t mean to say that you go there and you forget that everything is happening,” explained Marie Fukuda, 54, a victory gardener on the Fens and a project coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But it’s a reminder that there’s a pace of things that will continue regardless of whether we continue — and although that sounds weird, it’s also very comforting.”
After 24 years, “I can go out there and the same pesky weed that drives me crazy is coming up at around the same time it always does,” Fukuda said.
In springs and summers past, Seth Kilgore, a 64-year-old John Hancock Financial Services employee, could be seen walking from the garden to his South End apartment with a bucketful of fresh-cut flowers: peonies, zinnias, sunflowers.
Daffodils are his favorites, and over the past two decades he’s accumulated a large collection. Many are hand-me-downs from other victory gardeners who have moved out or moved on.
This spring there were flowers, but no gardener.
“We’ve missed the daffodils this year,” Kilgore said. His wife’s at high risk, so he hasn’t been down to his garden at all. “But there’ll be other years.”