Merrilee Runyan

Merrilee Runyan

Now is a good time to start a garden

How we grow our food can make a difference in the long term.

  • Saturday, March 28, 2020 2:58pm
  • Opinion

A month ago when I first began considering this commentary, I was thinking mostly about the climate crisis. I had read the Rodale Institute’s research on regenerative agriculture and Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown, “and been inspired by the idea that a significant change in the way we grow our food in this country and around the world could sequester much of the carbon we put into the atmosphere.

As a long time organic grower, I also knew that these changes would increase the nutritional value of our vegetables and fruits and contribute to cleaning up our waterways and oceans. So I was excited when I read in Green America about an effort to get home gardeners to adopt regenerative growing methods by creating the Climate Victory Garden movement and invited people around the country to sign up. Today, there are more than 2,300 home gardeners involved. Inspired by their idea, a group of island gardeners and advocates joined with VIGA’s Get Growing team to form the Vashon Soil Ambassadors. We set about creating a community education program that we hoped would do the same thing here.

The world has changed drastically since then. We are living in a pandemic. The ways we do things, especially how we work together, are changing. While workshops and gatherings are on hold, the good news is that there has never been a better time to start a garden on Vashon-Maury Island. We really need everyone to grow a little food if they possibly can, starting now.

In King County, less than 1% of the food we eat is grown here. As supply lines are challenged by the pandemic, we may need to grow much more food here in order to support our community. The small number of established farms, no matter how hard they work, will not be able to meet this demand alone. We can help close the gap and help our families, our neighbors and our community.

And how we grow our food can make a difference in the long term. Food grown using regenerative methods is part of the climate change solution. In fact, research from the Rodale Institute shows that regenerative methods, widely adopted, could sequester more than 100% of the current carbon dioxide emissions. It’s all about soil health. Healthy soil is fundamental to nutritious crops — and the healthier the soil, the better it is at growing food and keeping carbon underground.

So what’s different about growing in a regenerative way? The principles are simple: keep the soil covered with mulch which curbs erosion, decreases water needs and protects soil microbes; use compost to improve soil quality; minimize soil disturbance (think broadfork, not rototiller); keep living roots in the ground year-round; garden without chemicals in order to avoid killing beneficial organisms in the soil; grow a diversity of plants to create habitat for these organisms as well as for pollinators. Adopting these practices ourselves is an important first step towards the larger goal of changing the way food is grown worldwide.

We have a history of making a difference with our home gardens. During the first and second world wars, everyone was encouraged to grow Victory Gardens. Farmers were going to war and what food was grown on farms was needed for our troops. By 1944, nearly 20 million victory gardens produced 8 million tons of food — around 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States at that time. The time has come again to use our gardens as a force for good.

There are lots of wonderful YouTube videos to get you started. Local resources include Wild Dreams Farm’s Jen Williams, who sells Vashon-grown seeds through her website ( and Michelle Crawford, whose Pacific Potager (27918 Vashon Hwy SW) is open with an abundance of vegetable and flower starts for sale. Shop local nurseries and Thriftway as well. Look for a VIGA Get Growing Facebook page and visit the VIGA website, coming soon) for information, suggestions and more local resources. Check out the Climate Victory Garden Facebook page which is full of encouraging posts, videos and resources.

It’s challenging to think beyond the current coronavirus crisis — but it really is time to think big. What we do today can have an incredibly positive impact in both the short and long term. Starting a garden now is something enjoyable to do outside. Gardening will strengthen your body and spirit. You’ll get some delicious vegetables, too. In the long-term, you’ll be supporting the soil community, helping it do its important task of sequestering carbon while producing an abundance of food. Let’s build community — with each other and with the Earth. It is life-giving work of the utmost importance.

Merrilee Runyan has lived on Vashon Island for 29 years and is part of the Vashon Island Growers Association.

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