Planting Hope: Vermont Victory Gardens

Many people turned to gardening this season as a simple act of hope–to plant a seed is to bring life. Others sought out a new hobby to combat the idleness of this “pause” and commune in the great outdoors. And many more saw the potential of gardens to address freshly exposed realities, long-lived and new, of a growing food crisis.

Deidre Holmes, garden coordinator at Charlotte Central School, stood at the edge of the growing season this spring, seeds in hand, wondering what to do about the school garden. With uncertainty brought on by the global pandemic, plans for the school year were still up in the air, as they were and in many cases continue to be all over the state and country. Likewise, community gardens all over the state were stalling their season’s openings with questions of how to keep people safe when using communal growing spaces. In the face of that uncertainty one thing was certain: the need for fresh garden produce remained and was bound to grow in the months and potentially years to come. Deidre and many of her counterparts across the state, chose to plant.

In fact, it wasn’t just the seasoned gardeners and long-running community gardens that got to planting this spring. New gardens and first-time gardeners took on the endeavor in the wake of the pandemic. Many people turned to gardening this season as a simple act of hope–to plant a seed is to bring life. Others sought out a new hobby to combat the idleness of this “pause” and commune in the great outdoors. And many more saw the potential of gardens to address freshly exposed realities, long-lived and new, of a growing food crisis.

Vermont Victory Gardens

Potato harvest volunteers in Stamford, VT

One such group that sprouted as a result of this thinking: Vermont Victory Gardens, a University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener project, led by two Burlingtonians, Gordon Clark and Andrew Simon. Using the expertise of the state’s Master Gardeners and alumni network, the Vermont Victory Garden project set out to assist those who wanted to produce some of their own food or grow food to donate to meet community needs. The program provided gardens with planning support, assistance with acquiring materials for garden construction, free seeds from High Mowing and donated vegetable starts, scales for weighing donated produce, and expert coaching from planting through to harvest. Some garden groups whose location prevented them from finding a Master Gardener match also received remote assistance, such as how-to webinars.

The project ultimately connected 25 garden groups seeking to support their food insecure neighbors, and 30 Extension Master Gardeners to assist. Some groups responded to the Vermont Victory Garden call and started a-new this season; while other garden groups were already doing the work and saw this as a way to enhance  their efforts backed by a statewide network and an influx of resources.

Planting a new raised bed at the local retirement home (Stamford VT Seed Savers)

The biggest impact of the Vermont Victory Gardens project was unexpected. For many groups it was simply the name that drew them to get involved. Gordon found that: “People have very positive associations with Victory Gardens…Some groups clearly don’t need our help, but want to be a part of ‘Vermont Victory Gardens’…It quickly became a network, rather than just a service. It seemed groups found it just as important being part of the network as receiving seeds or a scale or Master Gardener…” Next year Gordon and Andrew plan to continue the program, allowing for an earlier spring start and with the intention to deepen the partnerships already made, taking advantage of the skills and expertise that already exist within their newly found network.

To learn more about Vermont Victory Gardens and hear about the wonderful work happening across the state, check out these nuggets of wisdom and inspiration from six of this year’s Vermont Victory Garden sites.

“Billow the Sails” – Malletts Bay Congregational Church – Colchester, VT
The Vermont Victory Garden project is “billowing the sails” of this small congregation, where their little garden is posed to make a big impact. Read more.

“A Community of Gardens Bloom” – Stamford VT Seed Savers – Stamford, VT
A “community of gardens bloom” in Stamford, in backyards, schoolyards, and donated land, thanks to the Stamford VT Seed Savers and collaborations with the town select board. Read more.

“Master Gardeners – A call to action”
Master Gardeners in Arlington and Jericho rejuvenate old garden projects, growing food for donation and collaborating with a local elementary school, food shelf and senior center to get their harvest to community members in need. Read more.

“Food Shelf Giving Gardens – Flipping the narrative”
In the Northeast Kingdom and the Mad River Valley, two food shelves are reaching out to their local communities to see what role gardens can play in getting food to their clientele. Read more.

From the Front Lines: Feeding Chittenden

The first piece of advice for any garden group or gardener who determines they’d like to donate produce is to connect with their local food rescue organization before planting and find out just what they’re looking for and how and when they’d like to receive it. Here are some tips from the front lines, thanks to Feeding Chittenden’s Food Rescue Coordinator, Angela DeBettencourt.

“We really value receiving fresh local produce from gardeners and farmers!” says Angela, “Many of the people we serve are left out of the local food movement. Local produce donations help pull them into that conversation.” The food shelf puts fresh produce out right away for clients and within minutes it’s gone. Feeding Chittenden has received an incredible influx of donated food since the start of the pandemic, and the gifts are beginning to match the need.

Susan Adams, Master Gardener Volunteer and her harvest for donation to her local food shelf (Deborah Rawson Memorial Library Garden)

While Angela and her colleagues love receiving fresh produce from gardeners, “The way we sometimes get it is challenging. Bags and bags of kale, greens that aren’t cleaned, etc.” Feeding Chittenden doesn’t have their own washing and bunching station to prepare these vegetables for clients, so receiving dirty and unbagged produce is a challenge. A couple of Angela’s co-workers were talking with folks from the City this spring and got on the topic of garden produce and this issue of managing vegetable donations. The City of Burlington’s “Plant for the People” program started in response to intercept that produce and get it to the food shelf and ultimately those who need it in a way that’s usable. The program started by giving out plant starts at Ace Hardware for a month in the spring to let people know about the initiative. Champlain Elementary School and the Intervale become collection sites for the produce, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Collection at the Burlington Farmer’s Market was added every other Saturday, responding to requests from working families to have drop off hours outside of regular business hours. The Plant for the People program was then responsible for washing, bagging and bunching the produce. This made it easier for distribution at the food shelf, but also seemed to have inspired a wider variety of unique donations like berries and heirloom tomatoes. The program also helped with quality control of donated produce, not accepting items like extra large zucchini, that no one would actually want to eat.

So without an incredible program like Plant for the People, what can gardeners do to make things easier for food shelves to get your harvest to those who need it? Angela says:

  • Washed, bunched, and bagged produce is a lot easier to give out.
  • Keep in mind quality control–i.e. no oversized zucchini or almost-rotten tomatoes. Give only what you would happily eat yourself.
  • Some food shelves care about quantities of food–enough to give out equally to all clients–however that’s not an issue at Feeding Chittenden. Any amount will do, as long as it’s easy to handle.
  • It’s a good idea to follow all classic food safety procedures, such as washing hands before harvesting, using clean bags, etc. During COVID the food shelf asks donors to wear masks when coming in.

Shifting Culture

Following her decision to plant, Deirdre has seen a shift in her school’s culture around gardening. This year there’s more interest in the garden than ever at Charlotte Central School, from the cafeteria to the school board. With a greater need in the community, the local food shelf is now open every week, and the school board has expressed interest in collaborating more closely with food donation programs. Deirdre’s school garden was converted to a donation garden this summer, run by an incredible fleet of volunteers. After a single Front Porch Forum post, 10 weeks of volunteer help filled up in one day. Deirdre has found that people are getting involved because they’re around more, want to learn how to garden, want to be engaged, and like many of us–they want to do something to help but don’t know what to do. As Deirdre puts it, “Public gardens check all of the boxes.” From planting to tending to the gift of harvest — giving gardens are an incredible beacon of hope in these challenging times.

Resources for Giving Gardens

Skip to content