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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane’s Tomato Lady is growing interest in raising produce

Master gardeners Joanne Lopata, left, and Elizabeth Casteel talk about herbs in Casteel’s home greenhouse. The two were packing herb baskets for the annual garden sale by the Master Gardener Spring Open House put on by the WSU/Spokane County Master Gardeners in April 2009 With the garden show  canceled due to COVID-19, Casteel and her husband, Steve, are selling young tomato and pepper plants out of their greenhouse. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Master gardeners Joanne Lopata, left, and Elizabeth Casteel talk about herbs in Casteel’s home greenhouse. The two were packing herb baskets for the annual garden sale by the Master Gardener Spring Open House put on by the WSU/Spokane County Master Gardeners in April 2009 With the garden show canceled due to COVID-19, Casteel and her husband, Steve, are selling young tomato and pepper plants out of their greenhouse. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

There have been warnings during nonstop coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic: The food supply is under threat.

Between massive outbreaks of the virus at pork processing plants in the Heartland and video of Florida farmers playing under the crops that were planned to supply the nation’s restaurants and commercial processors that are all shuttered for the time being, there is a growing fear that shortages, like the ones that started almost immediately for toilet paper and bleach products, are on our horizon.

Elizabeth Casteel heard the concerns of the people who flock to her each year for the tomato plants.

Spokane’s Tomato Lady has both a well-deserved reputation for growing her namesake plants and for her green thumb.

In March she began a series on her blog, “Notes from the Tomato Lady,” encouraging people to channel their concern into an old-fashioned idea she believes is a logical hedge against future shortfalls in fresh vegetables.

Victory gardens.

“It just seems like the smart thing to do,” she said of the movement that began during World War I and II to grow food in any available area. “If you have some space, start a garden. Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow veggies in a pot. Believe it or not, you can even grow carrots in a small container.”

It’s an idea whose time has come once again. At a time when people feel a lack of control over their environment, growing some of your own food is a way of improving mental and physical well-being.

The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Forbes magazine, as well as “CBS Sunday Morning,” all have run feature stories on the return of a symbol of both World Wars that went a long way toward keeping soldiers fed and the home fires burning.

“One of the positive spins of COVID-19 is the response from the community, and the need for folks to get out there and garden,” Kenya Fredie, program supervisor of the P-Patch community gardens in Seattle, told the website Crosscut. “(P-Patches) are unique ways to grow your own food during these economically uncertain times. We can be social with the distancing, getting people out of isolation and into the sunshine, getting their hands in the soil.”

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, an online provider of rare and heirloom seeds, has seen a big increase in demand for its product, even though two of its farms – one in Petaluma, California, and another in Mansfield, Missouri, have been shut down.

They aren’t alone. Seed sales across the country are up significantly.

Casteel is a popular stop for gardeners who flock to the annual Garden Expo at Spokane Community College or to her backyard on University Road, just off Broadway Avenue. But that event, which constitutes a third of her sales, was canceled this season due to the pandemic.

With 3,000 1-gallon pots of more than 200 varieties of tomato on hand, Casteel and her husband, Steve, have been selling young tomato and pepper plants out of their backyard greenhouse, plants that all got their starts in January on her dining room table. She asks her customers to adhere to social distancing as they browse the many and varied pots of tomato and pepper plants.

She calls sales “robust” since she began selling plants April 15. And Casteel has also seen a growing interest from first-time gardeners.

“I love to talk about gardening with people, and there are a lot of people who want to know how to get started,” she said. “It’s a challenge to tell them how to get started in just a couple minutes.”

In March she began outlining the ins and outs of starting a garden on her blog, where she shares her expertise.

The push to have people begin growing some of their own food so more of the food supply could be used to feed soldiers began in March 1917. It was a challenge.

A timber tycoon, Charles Lathrop Pack, was put in charge of the National War Garden Commission. In his memoir, “The War Garden Victorious,” he wrote:

“Oddly enough, it is usually hardest to influence man for his own benefit. The matter of home food production was no exception to the rule. Before the people would spring to the hoe, as they instinctively sprang to the rifle, they had to be shown, and shown conclusively, that the bearing of the one implement was as patriotic a duty as the carrying of the other. Only persistent publicity, only continual preachment, could convince the public of that.”

By 1944 there were roughly 20 million victory gardens growing about 40% of the nation’s food supply – some 8 million tons.

Online publications and websites offer tips and answers to nearly every question a budding gardener could have. Sites like YouTube are loaded with videos on everything from building a greenhouse to how to prepare your soil and choose plants.

Casteel is enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge, and her blog lays out her approach to growing a healthy, productive garden – from picking the right soil (never put dirt in a container garden, she warns – use potting soil), to building raised beds, cages and trellises to nurture your plants as they grow.

“It’s just good to get your hands dirty,” she said.

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