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Ozarks Residents Turn to Gardening In Times of Uncertainty

In this segment of our Sense of Community Series, KSMU's Jennifer Moore looks at how Ozarks residents are going back to their roots and planting gardens during this time of economic uncertainty.

Elizabeth Tomelleri says she and her husband are blessed that they can still afford to buy food. But the downturn in the economy inspired her to go back to the ways of her Italian grandparents…to dig her hands deep into rich black soil, and plant a garden.

"With the way things are going in the world today, there’s so much uncertainty, and I was thinking as we watch our IRAs, our retirement going down, down, down,I was trying to think of something that would be very hopeful," she said.

She says if she doesn’t use all of the produce she grows, she’ll give some away to a family who may be struggling to put food on their own table. She doesn’t expect to ever be without food, but life—and the economy—has taught her to “never say never.”

"Looking down the road, I think anyone who has eyes to see knows that bad things can happen. And so why not, why not have a garden?" Tomelleri asks.

And when she says she’s planting a garden, she means business. Besides the truckloads of dirt and compost she and her husband have brought in, they’re also building a small greenhouse next to their garage.

"My husband is sort of the bystander that looks and asks, 'Are you sure we need to be doing all of this?' But he's gone along with it," she laughs.

Workmen are just putting the finishing touches on the greenhouse.

Tomelleri says she’s learned almost everything she knows about gardening from a workshop held this winter at the public library. One of the instructors was Master Gardener Shelley Vaugine. She says she was overwhelmed by the 80 people who up at her last workshop, many of whom wanted to start their own gardens to save money.

"Oh, money is a very big topic this year. In the Springfield area, we’ve lost hundreds of jobs here. They’re just not finding them. And so they are going back to what they know," Vaugine said.

And what they know is what they’ve seen in their families from years gone by—planting a garden in times of uncertainty, whether it was the Victory Gardens of World War Two, or the reliance on growing your own food during the Great Depression.“A lot of these people grew up with a grandmother or parent who had a garden, so they want to go back to that because they know they can decrease their food bill by simply growing a lot at home,” Vaugine said.

But historian Brooks Blevins, who teaches Ozarks History at Missouri State University, says you have to be careful in comparing today’s gardening trends to the Great Depression.

"The thing to remember about that era—the late 1920s, 1930s, is that gardening was just part of the culture. It wasn’t a matter of, “Well the depression hit, now we need to start growing.” People were accustomed to growing their own food," Blevins said.

And yet, Blevins says the difficult economic times of the 1930s did lead Americans to rely more heavily on gardening, and to discover new ways to stretch their food supply into the long winter months.

"People would dig trenches and put fruits and vegetables in them, and cover them up with straw or something like that to try to preserve them. I’ve even read about people putting fruits and vegetables on their houses to keep most predators away and let them dry out," Blevins said.

Back in her new garden, Elizabeth Tomelleri says she remembers her grandparents’ garden, with grapevines brought over from Italy, and vegetables her grandmother used in her Italian cooking. She’s just waiting for the first sprouts to penetrate the soil.

"When I first see it, it is gonna be the first time in 30 years that I have seen something edible come up from what I’ve planted," she says.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.