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How a pandemic has pushed the resurgence of an American gardening tradition in SC

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Zack Snipes harvests arugula from a plot at Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center in West Ashley on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Charleston gardening businesses, like Rita's Roots, had a regular customer base with people the owners could easily recognize.

Now, even during a pandemic, these owners are constantly hearing new names from customers they've never met before, since residents are flocking to their businesses in high numbers for their gardens. 

"Suddenly, it was at the forefront of everyone's mind," said Rita Bachmann, the owner of Rita's Roots. 

The trend recalls the American tradition of creating what's called a "Victory Garden." During periods of international conflict, like the World Wars, many Americans were encouraged to grow their own vegetables and fruit to supplement their grocery and food rations. This was due to an increased labor shortage with fewer Americans working in fields, which resulted in fewer harvested foods brought to market. 

Though the current pandemic situation is unique, Zack Snipes, an area horticulture agent for Clemson University, said he isn't surprised to see more residents joining in on the "Victory Garden" trend. 

"It really gives you an appreciation of food," he said. "I wish more people would do it year round." 

'More the merrier'

Bachmann has found that, for some, the inspiration came from having more time to dedicate to a garden with stay-at-home orders. For others, she said, it's been to limit trips to the grocery store. 

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Zack Snipes harvests arugula from a plot at Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center in West Ashley on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

She has been running Rita's Roots for nine years where she sells gardening materials to customers, helps residents directly with their own gardens and offers online courses providing additional backyard gardening tips. 

Usually, the business has a big plant sale around this time of the year, she said. But with the pandemic, they've had to stop people from coming by looking at plants. Because of this, she said, they had to figure out what to do with thousands of plants that would be used as transplants for someone's garden. 

So she recently decided to allow people to purchase and order those plants online and pick them up during the week. This has been extremely popular. They've had at least 400 sales online. 

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Zack Snipes holds fresh kale from a plot at Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center in West Ashley on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

She and her staff also had to cut their in-person garden consultations with customers because of too many requests. Because it only takes one staff member to do a consultation, they are still able to provide the service and maintain a safe distance. 

"It's just been remarkable," she said. 

Harleston Towles is a farmer and owner of the Twenty Bag, a Charleston-based organic produce delivery service. Before the pandemic, the service was selling 70 bags of produce from his farms to residents. That number has now grown to 250.

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He said it's good to see that people are getting into gardening and organic produce. He hopes that after the pandemic he can continue to see the same amount of residents committing to the lifestyle. 

"There's always going to be people that want to garden," he said. "The more the merrier." 

Getting started

Ultimately, Snipes said he believes it's possible for someone to start a "Victory Garden" now they can use for a long time, even if it's their first time gardening. He personally does a combination of grocery shopping and pulling from his garden. 

"The first thing is to do your homework," he said. 

That way people know exactly what plants are in season, he said. Okra and eggplants are probably the best things to grow this time of year, Bachmann said. They are also good first-time plants for beginners. And herbs are pretty easy, as well.

Sweet potatoes are another good plant that can be planted at the end of May, Bachmann said. The cut-off for plants such as tomatoes is mid-April. Snipes said that if residents can find a collard greens transplant, they are pretty easy to grow as well. 

When it comes to picking a vegetable to grow regardless of the time of the year, Snipes said it's helpful for people to choose something they can continuously harvest from. People should also plant something that their family normally eats a lot. If they eat a lot of collard greens as a side, then planting collard greens is helpful because a person could harvest from the plant multiple times. 

He advises residents to visit the Clemson Home and Garden Information Center website for help when blueprinting their garden. They can find information on the site about soil and techniques. South Carolina residents also can call a Clemson consultant for specific questions at 1-888-656-9988.

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Zack Snipes tills out weeds from a plot of arugula at Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center in West Ashley on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

One reason residents should consider getting advice is to prepare for the Lowcountry's "dead period" in the summer. During that time, the heat is too intense for anything to grow. Most gardeners have to wait until the fall before temperatures drop enough to return to planting. 

Snipes and others hope that after the pandemic is over, people continue with gardening. They see it as a way to develop a helpful skill while being reminded how important it is to support local farmers. 

Snipes said it is also a great teaching tool for kids at home. 

“I hope this, if nothing else, puts the bug in people and people try it," Snipes said.

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.

Jerrel Floyd is an Alabama raised reporter who covers Summerville and Dorchester County for The Post and Courier.

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