Mary Jane Meirose thins out some of the new vegetable growth at her garden in Platte City, Mo., on April 27, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon

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When the pandemic first shut everything down, many people picked up new hobbies, from sourdough bread baking to more artistic pursuits. In the Kansas City area, local horticulturalists also saw interest in gardening ramping up. People wanted to grow their own food, and more than a year later, that interest has only grown.

“It started almost immediately last year with the lockdown in March, the uptick in people that were interested in growing their own food,” said Geoff Myer, manager at Planters Seed & Spice Co. in Kansas City’s River Market. “And it’s run through now. It’s busier now that it was then. I think most of the people who tried last year are trying again this year, and even more people are getting into it.”

Planters promoted pandemic “victory gardens” last spring — a reference to the government-encouraged home produce gardens millions of Americans planted during World Wars I and II. 

Myer estimates sales have gone up about 25% during the pandemic. 

But it’s not just stores seeing a boom. At Kansas State University, the horticulture extension provides education and technical assistance to farmers and gardeners. Johnson County horticulture extension agent Zac Hoppenstedt says he’s seen an uptick, too. 

“We definitely saw an increase in the quantity of inquiries coming into the office, this spring honestly probably even more so than at the beginning of the pandemic.” 

The office has also seen an increase in people sending in soil samples for analysis, usually a sign that people are starting gardens, Hoppenstedt said. The service is free for Johnson County residents.

The Kansas City Community Gardens has seen a bump as well. The organization typically supports about 2,500 home gardens, most of them for low- to moderate-income families. Last year, 740 new families bought memberships. Director of Development Jennifer Fink says many of these were families doing it out of need. 

“We definitely had people coming to us saying, ‘I’ve just been laid off, I’m stuck at home, I might as well garden and stretch my grocery budget,’” she said. “It’s a very different dynamic from what we usually see.”

Inside the greenhouse at Kansas City Community Garden’s Swope Park HQ on April 21, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Fink said a lot of longtime gardeners with the organization actually took last year off, since the pandemic hit right at spring planting season and people weren’t sure whether it was safe to go out. 

“What we’re seeing this year is that all of those longtime folks are back, all of the new folks are back, and our membership just in March has been up 44%,” Fink said. “We’re not even to our normal busy season — it’s usually not till April or May that newer gardeners think about getting out.”

The organization’s 670 garden plots around Kansas City currently have a waiting list — but that’s normal, Fink said. More and more people are discovering the return on investment a garden can provide when it comes to fresh produce. For example, Fink estimates that with the income-tiered membership system, low-income families might pay $25 in a year for membership, seeds, seedlings, supplies, plot rentals and the like. 

“Once you get good at gardening through three seasons — spring, summer and fall — you can grow $500 worth of organic produce pretty easily. It’s just a huge return on investment,” Fink said.

Kansas City volunteer and donation gardens

Not everyone picking up gardening is doing it for themselves. 

Organizations like Kansas City Community Gardens and the Johnson County Food Policy Council also run donation gardens — volunteer-run gardens that donate produce to food pantries and families in need. These services are important now more than ever because of the pandemic. 

Johnson County pantries alone saw about a 30-40% increase in clientele, said Claire Sinovic, preschool gardens coordinator at KCCG and member of the Johnson County Food Policy Council. 

Michael Rea runs Jubilee Community Garden, a donation garden at Community Covenant Church in Lenexa. It started as about nine raised beds in 2013. 

Michael Rea (L) and Tekia Thompson at Jubilee Community Garden housed at Community Covenant Church of Lenexa on April 22, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon

“Back then, I didn’t have my own garden space at my house, so I figured, well, they have tons of space at the church, so let’s do it there,” Rea said. “We’d donate it all, and if I needed a tomato or two I could take them home.” 

The gardens have more than quadrupled since then, now also involving volunteer efforts from two neighboring churches, Foundry Church and Lenexa Baptist. 

“I’m certainly seeing a lot more people who are interested in doing it,” Rea said. “Especially this year.”

When the pandemic hit, it was initially unclear what would happen with the garden. 

“I noticed quickly that a lot of pantries, a lot of programs were saying, ‘Hey, we really need fresh produce, can anybody help us?’” said Tekia Thompson, community engagement lead at Jubilee. “I was just like, ‘Oh gosh, we’ve got to get the garden going.’” 

Last year, Thompson estimated the garden produced about 1,200 pounds of produce.

Rewards of gardening more than just produce

Mary Jane Meirose was inspired by the pandemic to give gardening a serious go. 

She had been working in Nashville at a corporate human resources job and decided to ride out the pandemic with her parents in Platte City, Missouri. When she got there, she wanted to find somewhere to volunteer, but many opportunities were shut down. But at the Kansas City Community Gardens, they were hiring a full-time staff member. 

“I had been working in a cubicle, staring out the window, reading a lot of gardening books and just wanting to get out,” Meirose said. “I thought, now is the time to start — food insecurity is just going to ramp up from here.”

Meirose started building raised beds and tilling up a garden plot at her family’s home. She now coordinates education and outreach for the community garden’s orchards across the city. 

“For the past two years, I’d say it’s been a dream of mine to grow my own food and get back to my roots, I guess in both forms of the word,” she said. “It was like, the world is turning upside down, might as well turn my life upside down with it.”

Gardening can be about more than just food. 

“I think (working in a donation garden) is really therapeutic for the volunteers — and for myself — in terms of serving the needy and providing produce to community members,” Hoppenstedt said. “There’s benefit to the social interaction, and the learning and the research-proven benefits on mental health of being outside and working in the soil with plants.”

Fink with the Kansas City Community Gardens agrees. 

“We heard so many people say, ‘The garden was my mental health bright spot.’ We’d have seniors who are in living towers and residences where they were literally stuck in a room for a year, but they could go out to the garden,” Fink said. “They could be at one bed, their neighbor could be at another, and they were safe. It just gives them that sense of community that we’ve all been so desperately lacking.

“After a year at home, and kind of a depressing year, we’re all ready to get out and do something positive,” Fink said. “And gardening has been hot.”

Resources

Got a garden question? Call the Johnson County Extension Master Gardener Hotline at 913-715-7050 or email garden.help@joco.org

Want to volunteer in a community garden? Visit kccg.org/volunteer

Donate your home-grown produce through Harvesters’ Plant A Row for the Hungry program or through After the Harvest KC

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Anna Funk

Anna Funk is a freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City. After earning a Ph.D. in plant biology, she started her journalism career as a AAAS Mass Media fellow at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,...