Natasha Hegmann is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Ennis, MT.

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“I’d like to learn how to grow tomatoes in the Madison Valley’s inhospitable, rocky soil.”
“I want to raise corn that won’t be flattened by our turbulent summer winds.”
“I’d like to be able to store onions until March.”
“I’m wondering how to protect my vegetable plants from extreme conditions – like the foot of hail we got last summer.”

What daunting requests to hear from a room full of seasoned gardeners, most of which had at least twenty years on me. These are just a few of the class expectations I heard about a month ago when I embarked on teaching an adult education course entitled “Victory Gardening.” On Day 1, the expectations for my six week course ranged from soil building, wind breaks, row cover, seed starting and seed saving to hobby greenhouses, winter crop storage and food preservation. Within the first ten minutes of class I felt as if my stomach had dropped out – had anyone read the course description?

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“At one point in our history, tending a backyard vegetable garden was considered a matter of national security. What is the importance of gardening in society today? In this service-based class we’ll hear stories of victory gardens during WWII and then re-examine gardening in a contemporary context: how can gardeners make our community more resilient and self-reliant in light of high gas and food prices?”

Despite some initial skepticism and confusion among my students, after five weeks of class I feel like my Victory Gardening group has whole-heatedly embraced my intended themes.

In one of our first classes we broke down the buzzword food security in terms of the Madison Valley. What does it mean to be food secure? Are we food secure if we can shop for all our needs at Costco in Bozeman every other week? Must food be grown closer to home to ensure a food secure community? What about nutritional content – if we can’t purchase fresh vegetables at affordable prices in the Madison Valley, is our community food insecure? What does “affordable” even mean?

Picture 4These discussions brought more questions than answers, but the end result has been quite tangible. The group identified seeds, their genetic diversity, availability, and ability to reproduce as viable plants as a key issue to food security. So, under the title of a brand new organization, the Madison Valley Gardener’s Network, the class is collecting heirloom seeds, cataloging them, and propagating them. The goal of the project is to acquire basic seed saving skills (by hosting a workshop) and, eventually, to share the skills and seeds with the rest of the community through partnerships with the Ennis Elementary School and the local Caring and Sharing Food Bank.

Together with twenty frustrated gardeners, I’ve learned that gardening can be much more than a method of providing food for oneself and family. The joy and excitement that individual gardeners feel for gardening can spill beyond fenced backyards. This energy can be channeled to cultivate school gardens and to grow momentum to build an outdoor classroom, helping to foster a new generation full of enthusiasm for growing and eating healthy fresh food.

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On February 4th, students from the Victory Gardening class helped Madison Farm to Fork in planting cool weather crops in the groups geothermal greenhouse.

During WWII, the US government encouraged factories to provide garden space to their workers, city governments to support community gardens and individual families to tend large kitchen gardens. These gardens were dubbed “Victory Gardens,” and were intended to offset the costs of war and reduce strain on transportation and food production sectors. In earlier eras, similar programs existed, such as Liberty Gardens in WWI and Relief Gardens during the Great Depression.

Ennis Continuing Education students volunteered to help prepare beds and plant cool weather crops in the Madison Farm to Fork greenhouse in early February.

Also, Natasha recommends Roger Doiron’s TEDx talk, A Subversive Plot: How to Grow a Revolution in Your Backyard.