Growing Community: Berks History Center Responds to COVID-19 through Gardening

On August 13, 1919, a furious storm blew through Philadelphia. The rain and wind continued into the next day, but by the 15th, the storm had moved on to New England. With the return of milder weather, the city’s students also returned to their schools to tie up broken tomato stalks and fix strings in their bean plots. These children were tending to their victory gardens– vegetable patches planted throughout the country during World War I. Victory gardens were a way for ordinary Americans to participate in the war effort. By growing their own food, citizens helped conserve farm produce for soldiers. Gardening during difficult times has since become somewhat of an American tradition. With the onset of the Great Depression, communities created subsistence gardens in order to feed themselves, and victory gardens sprung up again during World War II. 

The Berks History Center in Reading, Pennsylvania, has turned to this tradition of gardening during crises as we face our own moment of uncertainty. The coronavirus outbreak in early March has left over two million people in Pennsylvania unemployed; not surprisingly, many of these individuals without income are confronting housing and food insecurity. The history center launched its project “Berks History for Victory” in response to these challenges facing the Berks community during the outbreak. McKenna Britton, Archivist at the Berks History Center and Rutgers University-Camden alum, explained that the idea to start a gardening project first came about in April. 

McKenna Britton, Archivist and the Berks History Center and Rutgers University-Camden alum, prepares saplings for kick-start kits (photo courtesy of Berks History Center).

 Our Communications Director/Associate Director, Alexis Campbell, proposed the project to all of us in early April. The idea of a renaissance for victory gardening had been popping up in the museum media outlets, and–as a gardener herself, and historian–Alexis really wanted us to play a part in the movement. It started out as a small brainstorming idea, and, over the last two months, has grown immensely,” Britton said.  

 Since April, the history center has created digital resources that provided historical context on gardening and tips for at-home food production. Staff also transformed their little free library into a “little seed library” stocked with free seed packets. With the help of the Friends of the Reading City Hospital, the history center handed out 250 kick-start kits to Berks residents. These kits contained two pepper plants and a tomato plant as well as a bilingual educational pamphlet so that community members could begin their own gardens. History center staff hope that these efforts provide residents with a source of fresh produce and encourage them to reach out to their neighbors.   

Along with handing out kick-start kits so that community members can plant gardens, the history center has also undertaken some planting of its own. Earlier in May, staff installed two medium-sized garden beds outside of the Berks History Center museum planted with cabbage, tomatoes, and other vegetables. Staff also erected signage so that people walking by can learn more about the victory garden and perhaps become interested in planting their own. The history center plans to distribute excess produce grown in the on-site plots throughout the community.  

At a time when museums are responding to this crisis with digitally-mediated experiences– virtual tours and Zoom events– I was struck by the physicality of Berks’ victory garden project. The history center is helping people to step away from their screens, get their hands dirty, and connect with others in the community through the shared experience of planting a garden. That is not to say that the project eschews technology. Gardeners connect through the project’s Facebook page, Berks Victory Gardeners, which currently has 300 active members. Residents have shared pictures of their gardens and their own gardening tips. The history center regularly interacts with the group and shares gardening information through its social media platforms and its newsletter. “It’s a fun, morale-boosting conversation that we were able to help cultivate within the Berks community!” Britton said.  

Berks History Center staff hand out free supplies to to start a victory garden to community members (photo courtesy of Berks History Center).

 The coronavirus outbreak has forced museums and historic sites to rethink how they engage with their community. With scientists suggesting that there may be another outbreak in the fall, we are potentially facing a future in which social distancing measures are a more permanent part of our lives. In response, many museums have gone digital. These digital history projects have many benefits; they allow museums to reach their audiences without risking potential exposure, and allow visitors to access sites around the globe from their homes. Yet, not everyone has internet access, and there is something about physical experience, tactile engagement with the world, that cannot be recreated digitally.  

 “Berks History for Victory” responds to the need for our current moment of quarantine while recognizing the benefits of shared experience grounded in the physical world. Partaking in the communal act of gardening connects neighbors even when they cannot be near one another and reminds people that they do not have to weather this moment alone. The rhythms of gardening, daily watering and weeding, watching starts turn into plants and then bear fruit, can be a source of stability during this unstable time.  

 For the Berks History Center, victory gardening is about addressing people’s psychological as well as material needs. As McKenna Britton said, “the idea behind victory gardening, that the encouragement of it was seen as a morale-booster and comfort for the folks at home, really clicked with us in terms of what people might need and want from us during this tumultuous and hard time. Even while wearing masks and gloves and keeping 6-feet of distance between us and community members, we were still able to gauge the excitement of the folks who stopped by our booths to pick up their gardening kits. That excitement and the gratitude those folks showed us for sharing supplies with them was priceless.”