Featured photo: Ashley Johnson’s porch garden. (photo by Ashley Johnson)

I have two brown thumbs, literally and figuratively. I am the great-granddaughter of a farmer and sharecroppers on both sides. I watched my grandmother plant an acre of corn, beans, tomatoes, okra and lettuces every year when I was a child. No stranger to fresh produce, I was more interested in the final result on my plate rather than how seeds germinated.

I am two generations removed from tilling soil and harvesting crops and I can’t even keep air plants alive. Potted plants meet the end of their chlorophyll-filled life under my supervision or lack thereof. Onions rot and bake in the sun. Herbs just straight up shrivel up and die. Not to mention seeds I plant barely make it out of the seedling phase before weeds, mushrooms and other fungi take over. The only thing I have successfully cultivated is mold.

Until now.

A friend on Facebook offered free tomato seedlings to anyone willing to pick them up from her front porch. Feeling a burst of confidence, I picked up two seedlings and two planters, a bag of potting soil and fair amount of bravado to start my own garden on my porch. Being at home 24 hours a day during the pandemic has given me the time to care for and attend to a mini nursery of fruit-bearing productivity. My new name is Persephone, goddess of vegetation.

Nikki’s tomato plants. (photo by Nikki Miller-Ka)

And so I’m calling 2020 the Summer of the Victory Garden.

During WWI and WWII, the government encouraged people to plant victory gardens to offset food shortages and to boost national morale. Today, folks are planting gardens and harvesting fruits of their labor out of boredom and to keep their minds off the changing social and political climates.

Connor Sullivan at Reynolda Nursery and Landscaping Supplies in Winston-Salem is seeing an uptick in sales and wannabe gardeners coming in. He starts them off slowly.

“The easiest bulk vegetable seeds to grow are your squash, zucchini and even cucumbers,” he said. “You can plant them and just let them go.”

First-time gardener Ashley Johnson of Winston-Salem decided to start gardening because she needed a break from the news cycles.

“It felt like the perfect time to do more with my hands,” she says.

Johnson’s grandmother had an influence on her gardening aspirations too.

“My grandmother used to have plants all around her home,” Johnson says. “She would even drop a sprouted potato in a jar of water and just let it grow leaves.”

A pot of basil sits on Ashley Johnson’s porch (photo by Ashley Johnson)

Johnson said her grandmother loved to watch things grow. She didn’t quite understand it until she started gardening and adding plants to her home. A need for fresh air and a longing to do something with her hands that didn’t involve clicking around on a computer was the impetus for her new garden.

“Being indoors and at a screen pushed me outside this year,” she says. “I found myself stepping away on my breaks to go stand out on my porch and watch the pots. There would be not a single seedling, but I’d be out there, diligent and prayerful.

“Nothing makes me happier than hopping out on my back porch and clipping some rosemary for a steak, thyme for pasta, basil for a sauce, parsley for a garnish or smoothie,” she continues.

Currently growing under my employ are two full-sized tomato stalks, an Alberta spruce pine, which will become my Christmas tree come December; a couple pumpkins, some russet potatoes and, as a treat to myself for keeping the tomatoes alive for two months, a lavender bush.

Johnson’s new garden is far more advanced and planned than my own. Three lettuces, arugula, carrots, currants, tomatoes, two types of radish, green onions and green beans. But her herbs are her pride and joy.

Ashley Johnson grows lettuce on her patio (photo by Ashley Johnson)

A modern “Scarborough Fair,” Johnson has rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley, cilantro and dill. She watched a lot of instructional videos and got determined after learning how to create natural insecticides, how to transplant and find the right soil combination and sun exposure for container plants they took off.

“To garden is to have hope and belief,” she says, “something this pandemic — this time in history — is quite short of.”

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