The New Victory Garden; 5 Inspiring Edibles and a Tale of Hope

I’d like to start by telling you a true story; it is the chronicle of how I became a gardener. The tale begins over a century ago, 1916 to be precise, and takes place in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. This was the home of my great grandfather, Howard Sherwood and his wife May. Howard had just survived the trenches of World War 1 where he was wounded in an artillery barrage and had met his wife while recovering in Folkestone England. They moved to Canada in hopes of a peaceful existence as the ‘war to end all wars’ was still in the process of extinguishing roughly 20 million lives. Life was looking promising; Howard had a job as a postman, May was pregnant with their first child and then something bad happened, a flu outbreak that’s often compared to what we’re going through now.

Howard Sherwood the Postman / Circa 1916 Saskatoon

Just as May was admitted to hospital to give birth, the epidemic hit Saskatoon and the nurses insisted that Howard take his newborn child home while May recovered. So there he was, wandering the streets of Saskatoon in late October with a newborn baby girl crying in arms when he experienced an act of Canadian kindness. A woman had heard the infant wailing and asked Howard why he didn’t bring her home. He responded that he had to deliver the mail and had no one to watch her, as his wife was sick in hospital with flu. That woman, Elizabeth Jobin, offered to take care of her until her mother got better and did so for several months, while May was recovering.

I firmly believe that this act of altruism was responsible for sparing the child, and the life of Patricia Sherwood, my grandmother, was definitely one worth saving. She would grow up in Vancouver a rather ordinary girl, neither beautiful nor particularly good in school, but she had a deep sense of compassion that one rarely experiences in others. She had to quit high school to take care of her ailing mother and she lost her only brother Bob when he died of smoke inhalation as a volunteer firefighter – so as a young woman she was very much alone in this world. She married in 1938 becoming Patricia Plementos and during WW2 planted a Victory Garden in their Prince Rupert home to help her young family. By the time I came around, she lived on several acres near Kelowna, all of which had been converted to beautiful gardens and a cherry orchard. That lonely little girl had become the family matriarch, and we vacationed at her home every summer no matter where we lived across Canada, as did my uncles, aunts and cousins. Family and gardening were the two most important things in life to her and I think for the most part, I just followed in her footsteps.

My grandmother Patricia and her mother May / Stanley Park 1938

Which brings us to today and the current pandemic; a time when most of us are keeping our families close at hand and rediscovering the joys of gardening, since many of us are housebound. I am particularly inspired by those of you looking for that special plant to intrigue the kids or for edibles that you can grow just about anywhere, so in the spirit of doing my part to make life a little better during these trying times, here are five plants to create your own Victory Garden, one to bring joy during these days of adversity.

Bubblegum Plant (Gaultheria procumbens) This Canadian native is my go-to perennial whenever I encounter bored kids at the garden centre. The essential oils from this subshrub are used to flavour candies, chewing gum and toothpaste; so even a slight sniff of a torn leaf is bound to put a smile on any kid’s face. A refreshing tea can be made from the leaves by either brewing or steeping them in water, while the berries can be eaten in small quantities. Pregnant or nursing women should abstain, as should very young children. That said, it makes a great evergreen groundcover in partial sun and grows well in containers.

Bubblegum Plant / Gaultheria procumbens

Electric Daisy (Acmella oleracea) What’s not to like about a bronze-leaved summer flower with red and yellow blooms that look like alien eyeballs? But it gets even better as Electric Daisies are the Pop Rocks of the plant world, because when you eat one of the flowers you get the sensation of touching a 9-volt battery to your tongue (don’t ask me how I know this). The experience begins with a slightly bitter herbal or citrus flavour, followed by salivation and the tingling, and is often accompanied by an altered sense of taste. The effect only lasts for about 15 minutes but it still makes for a great practical joke. The leaves can also be used in salads for a similar, albeit diminished experience.

Electric Daisy / Acmella oleracea

Giant Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) Nothing serves as a better symbol of hope than planting a giant sunflower, as those tiny seeds germinate and quickly grow into colossal 10-12’ stalks with massive seed heads ranging from 12-20” across. A direct sowing (once soils have warmed to 50F) is your best choice for strong plants. The kids can enjoy watching the bees pollinate them, after which they can either harvest the seedheads for roasting or leave them for the wild birds to enjoy.

‘Giganteus’, ‘Russian Mammoth’ and ‘Mongolian Giant’ are all good choices.

Giant Sunflower / Helianthus annuus

Golden Strawberry (Fragaria vesca ‘Golden Alexandria’) This golden-leaved plant with slender red fruits that taste like bubblegum and strawberry was always a favourite of my three daughters. It is an everbearing type so it produces all summer and the lack of runners makes it easy to grow in your garden or containers.

Fragaria vesca 'Golden Alexandria' / Golden Alpine Strawberry

Cucumelon (Melothria scabra) An easy to grow vegetable from starter plants or seeds that loves to climb just about anywhere; at the base of a leggy shrub, up a trellis or even on a tripod of stakes. The tiny yellow flowers are followed by 1” long spotted fruits that strongly resemble watermelons (also called ‘mouse melons’) but have the flavour of a slightly sour cucumber with citrus overtones. They are produced throughout the summer and can be eaten whole by kids who love to snack on them.

Cucumelon / Melothria scabra