About a month and a half into my furlough after COVID-19 sent us all into our homes, I started a garden on my porch. For the first time ever, I wanted to grow food. The easiest thing I could think of on my little wooden second story porch was a pepper plant, so during my trip to start my second annual herb pot, I bought a sweet pepper plant and a pot with no holes in the bottom to give it a go. Little did I know that this was a trend starting all across not just the city of Green Bay, but the whole country.
Every day I drive to work now, I drive past homes where I saw exactly zero evidence of any kind of garden in the previous growing season now full of plants. Front yards, once a barren wasteland of suburban grass, have been turned into growing patches for peppers and tomatoes and onions. I look out my window and see every other porch has become home to a similar menagerie of little potted plants, giving it their all in the summer sun to grow food for an insecure and afraid people.
It gave me a great sense of comfort to go out to my porch every morning and water my plants, to see new flowers growing on my peppers and know that a little pepper would be in its place soon. I could walk outside, cut a few leaves of basil from my thriving genovese basil, and turn out a pesto for dinner at a fraction of the cost it would take if I got that basil at the grocery store. A five dollar plant has turned out maybe fifty dollars worth of grocery store basil for me this season alone, and it’s still bigger than its predecessor I left behind in Delaware could ever hope to be.
My sweet peppers have finally started to turn red, more than four months after I planted that little guy in an ill fitting pot. It looked cute when I bought it at the store, and I didn’t know that I needed to have drainage points in the bottom. Still it grew. Still it thrived. I never saw any sign of its roots rotting away in too much water. It just kept going, and it gave me hope as a result. I needed hope today.
The moment that I’m writing this article, my husband is away to visit family while I stay at home. My employer hasn’t explicitly stated that we cannot travel, but the pressure is there all the same as a healthcare worker to remain in one place and stop the spread of the disease that put me out of work in the first place. The only people I’ve seen are the grocery store attendants and other shoppers that passed me in the aisles Saturday morning. No one even said hello.
I’ve lived like this for less than forty-eight hours, and I feel immensely for the people my age that have had to do this for the entirety of the pandemic. The only thing that’s put a smile on my face today is walking out into my COVID garden and seeing two of my peppers have started to turn red, ripening in the latest Wisconsin heat wave. They’re doing their part to help me combat the food shortages and distribution problems plaguing our country even now.
My little COVID garden provides for me what I think it provides to many of us taking to horticulture during the pandemic. Hope. Control. A sense of pride. Everything I bring back in from my porch is another thing I don’t have to get from the store. One less exposure. One less questionable decision to go out in public. With my own two hands I’ve cultivated seven plants to maturity and only one to complete stagnation beneath the high boughs of a basil plant no rosemary could hope to keep up with. Five herbs will need to be dried when the growing season ends. I’ll have to make hot sauce or pickles from my jalapenos to get any real use out of the twenty separate peppers growing on my little Joe La’Peno out there. I could eat sweet peppers in every single meal of the day, so they’re probably the one plant out there I don’t have to worry about.
But the thing is, it’s not worry. I’m excited to stretch those products that I have produced with my own two hands into completely different things down the line, and if I know anything about the last generation that lived like this, I don’t think I’m ever going to stop. My grandmother was an avid tomato gardener for much of her life, my mother tells me, and I think that has a lot to do with the simple practice of the Victory Garden. What I’ve got on my porch is no victory garden.
It’s the product of a pandemic that’s put us all in a silent war we may never actually win. There is no clear and present enemy. There is just this thing making people sick and killing some but not all. The uncertainty of it is what makes the practice of the COVID Garden a comfort. At least out there, on my little wooden porch, I can be sure that I’ll have a new pepper growing on Joe La’Peno tomorrow morning. Two of Jolene’s sweet peppers will be even brighter red, and I can start harvesting.
Ripe peppers will make me briefly forget the uncertainty of the world around me. I can have a nice snack without expecting anything from anyone else. No ‘essential’ worker had to stock my shelf for those peppers. Nobody had to hide behind a plexiglass screen to run it over a laser and check me out of their store. I went outside every day. I cared for it. I grew it, and now it’s mine to eat.
I will never forget the three months I spent unemployed without a single cent coming in the door, the sheer feeling of hopelessness I felt when I couldn’t do anything to improve my situation but make my husband dinner and grow plants on my porch. But by god, I grew those plants. I’ll keep growing those plants. This is but one ritual developed in the only outdoor setting we could trust for months that I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life.
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An idea born in Normal, Illinois, Eating Normal hopes to chronicle the eating Experiences of a Red bird. Pledge monthly to our patreon!