By Stephen Smoot
Though the free seeds for this year are all gone, the West Virginia University Extension Service’s “Grow This: The West Virginia Garden Challenge” continues.
Now in its sixth year, the Grow This challenge exists to help West Virginians learn gardening skills once commonly practiced across the state. For generations who lived before grocery stores and who later experienced shortages during the world wars, gardening served as a vital part of family life. Modern times have made food easier to purchase at the store than grow at home, but the rise of inflation has many taking a new look at an old practice.
Brooke Alt, with the WVU Extension Service in Pendleton County, says that “this program provides West Virginia residents with free seeds to help grow produce in their own gardens.” She added, “There is an educational aspect that goes along with it, and people can follow their Facebook and Instagram pages for more information.”
The program provided access to the free seeds to those who completed a short survey last month. Over 25,000 seeds were distributed quickly across the state.
When the program started in 2018, the extension service only had a few hundred seeds to distribute. In 2020, interest in the program exploded due to COVID 19. Some wanted a hobby to pass the time during lockdowns and remote work. Others feared that food supplies might run short and gardened for household food security.
Kristin McCartney, WVU Extension Service assistant professor explained in a recent release that “with the high cost of food right now, people can really benefit from learning how to grow their own food.” She adds that “gardening can seem like a daunting task to people who have never done it before.” McCartney advises that first timers “start small with a few crops and let your confidence grow from there.”
“Homesteading has become popular,” Alt stated, adding that “during the pandemic, we saw an increase in calls to our office with questions about gardens, pruning trees, raised beds, etcetera.” Many have also called to learn more about canning and preserving, another old-time mountain skill that was once very common.
Gardening also provides the sense of security that comes from knowing where your food comes from. Alt says, “A lot of people are concerned about chemicals being on their food.” Beginning gardeners should also learn about the “bugs and ‘critters’” that they will have to watch for and remove.
Even though the free seeds are gone for another year, the program offers much more. For example, the “Grow This” email newsletter helps gardeners stay on track with weekly advice and “to do” lists based on the WVU Extension Service garden calendar. Their Facebook and Instagram pages offer opportunities to interact with program experts, learn about gardening, and even win prizes for participating in discussions. Alt says, “They have a lot of great information there and host webinars on how to garden. Each month they have been featuring different vegetables for the public to learn more about.”
In 2022, over 100,000 West Virginians received seeds. Over 40 percent of participants last year were first time gardeners.
The program serves as part of the extension service’s Family Nutrition Program, supported by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.