The Down-Home Coronavirus Victory Garden Blues

by Taffy Cannon

The last thing I bought before I came home for good on March 12th was a Lemon Boy tomato plant. I had no idea that this would become the cornerstone of my impromptu Victory Garden.

I wasn’t planning a vegetable garden at all. In San Diego we get fabulous produce year-round and I was pretty sure that would continue. I intended to spend a lot of garden time just hanging out this summer with my daughter and two-year-old granddaughter, who live an hour away.

A few days later the entire state of California shut down, as did that plan. I figured my husband and I could manage sequestration easily enough; we’ve both worked from home for a long time and know our boundaries and spaces. Indeed, my life turned out to be a lot like it was before I had a child, a book contract, or community responsibilities.

The garden, however, was different from the beginning.

When I do spring cleanup in my yard—a space filled with wondrous things but perpetually overplanted and overgrown—I don’t normally water with my own tears. Through the first blurry weeks I continued the major cleanup I’d started after Christmas, and quietly passed the two-week mark then considered the longest incubation period.

I decided to grow as many vegetables as I possibly could.

Most of the places I dwell in my fantasy worlds are remote and isolated: islands, mountaintops, farms, lonely beaches, ranches, woodland cottages. Now I was living that isolation. My home and my garden became my sanctuary and my project. Apart from morning walks, I never left the property.

I set up parameters.

The Victory Garden would contain only what I already had or could grow from seed. No trips to the nursery. My herb garden was thriving, missing only annual basil and dill. I let last year’s parsley and a forgotten scallion clump go to seed.

I would use seed from previous years and materials I already had, sometimes literally lying around. Unfortunately, I’d tossed much of my elderly seed stash last year when I planted a quixotic Rainbow Garden—Glass Gem Indian corn, with multi-colored collections of beets, radishes, pole beans, and Patty Pan squash.

I planted what seed remained in fifteen-gallon containers and ordered more from Renee’s Garden, quick-maturing varieties. When they warned of shipping delays, I talked a Texas Hill Country friend into mailing me his own castoff seed, some literally retrieved from the trash. When I ordered from Renee’s again later, my earlier selections had sold out.

I rarely sow directly into the ground, and hadn’t started seedlings indoors for years. I was never very good at it anyway. Now I gave it my best shot and tried not to check my babies more than six or eight times a day.

Coddled seed grows very, very slowly. It was still too cold to plant these warm-weather crops outside, anyway. March crawled by and April meandered in.

But there was plenty to do in my increasingly manicured flower gardens. Spring flowers ignored the pandemic, and just walking out the back door soothed me. Pulling tens of thousands of weeds provided purpose as well as compost fodder. I refurbished a large vegetable bed that hadn’t been used for years. I shored up and stained decaying trellises.

Time passed with none of the normal celebrations I love. St. Patrick’s Day, my husband’s birthday, Palm Sunday, Easter, my son-in-law’s birthday, Mother’s Day.

Everything scientific we learned about Covid-19 was confusing, contradictory, and likely to change tomorrow. Masks? No, then suddenly and dramatically yes, as sewing machines whirred from coast to coast. Government responses at national, state, and local levels often resembled overcrowded clown cars of the ill-informed. People were dying at terrifying rates in congested northeastern cities and the rural West thought it was all a leftist crock.

The West Coast curve was flattening, but testing remained a macabre joke. I pretended that my daughter and granddaughter lived in Nova Scotia, too far away for random weekend visits. Eventually I returned to the book due on September 1, a too-timely caregiving guide. Much later, I graduated from my comfort reads of Nancy Drew to Ross MacDonald, both anchored in earlier worlds.

I could escape everything in the garden.

With no traffic, skies blazed blue and bright, more so after rare heavy April rains. Most of the ambient noise of suburbia was gone, and in this neighborhood of older residents, life became deliciously quiet, save for bird songs. My mountaintop, my island, my woodland cottage.

I have never grown such pampered veggies: watered twice daily, thinned seedlings replanted elsewhere (successfully!). I cheated only once on my subsistence plan when I had my husband buy me dill and Supersweet 100 tomato plants at the nursery where I’d let him indulge a fuchsia-sale jones.

I decided to visit my own favorite nursery in June, even if I needed a Hazmat suit.

By mid-May, the Victory Garden was moving into its maintenance phase. When I finally got a functional soaker hose placed, my initial deep watering doubled the size of baby plants overnight and triggered a probable-leak warning from the water department. A baby bunny appeared. Days grew hot, and some of my seedling babies fried during their hardening stage. I stopped worrying about that because it was nearly June, when I’d mask up and head for the nursery.

Finished sweet peas moved to compost and tomatoes replaced them. Fruit appeared on the Blue Lake beans and Lemon Boy tomato and Patty Pan squash. Cucumbers climbed their supports and I snipped fresh dill into my morning eggs.

I passed the milestone I always miss at first: when I’m so busy with what’s growing that I stop making inconsequential notes on my garden calendar. I always felt guilty about this until I read Thomas Jefferson’s garden journals and discovered that he did the same thing.

We couldn’t celebrate my daughter’s sixth anniversary on May 31, because she was still in Nova Scotia.

But on June l, I went to the nursery.