Vegetable gardens aren’t just business to Brandon Merchant, the founder and owner of Tucson’s Southwest Victory Gardens. They’re peacemakers—symbols of community, American idealism, and civic pride.
“When I was first thinking of a name for the business, I had a bunch of generic ideas—things like Tucson Raised Bed Gardens, and so forth,” says Merchant, who is 33. “But I kept coming back to the victory gardens concept because, for me, it evoked something more than just a backyard garden. What I do is a backyard garden with a purpose.”
Victory gardens, or war gardens, were grown during both World War I and World War II to aid the American war effort by reducing stress on the nation’s food supply. Propaganda posters proclaimed that “seeds of victory assure fruits of peace,” and implored citizens to “dig on.” The message was successfully communicated. At the height of WW II, around 20 million victory gardens, according to historians, produced approximately 8 million tons of food, which—at that time—was more than 40 percent of all the fruits and vegetables eaten in the United States.
“There was a very real, very palpable, very apparent benefit to having a garden,” Merchant says.
Nearly 75 years later, Merchant and Southwest Victory Gardens (SVG) are part of a nationwide resurgence of self-sufficiency via local, organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Merchant, who launched SVG in 2013 after moving to Tucson from Phoenix following the stock market crash of 2008, sees backyard gardening much like jury duty, he told me one recent morning over breakfast at Casa Santa Rosa in South Tucson.
“Growing a garden is a patriotic thing, like being a part of civil society,” says Merchant, a Southern California native who grew up in Yuma. “If all of us knew where our food came from, there’d be greater appreciation for it, we’d be less wasteful. We’d be more, sort of, in touch with plants and nature.”
Juliana Piccillo says that’s exactly why she hired Merchant back in 2014 to install an organic vegetable garden in her backyard in midtown Tucson.
“I wanted to grow everything that I consumed,” says Piccillo, a local documentary filmmaker whose home includes lush gardens in the back and front of her house. Piccillo says she found out about SVG through a Facebook gardening group and decided that Merchant—who frequently posted tips on improving one’s soil quality—could help her grow more of the vegetables she likes to eat and buy less of at the grocery store.
“I really liked that when Brandon was working with me he wanted to know what my goals were, how much of my produce would come from the garden, how much I wanted to work at it, things like that,” Piccillo says. “I haven’t gotten to growing 100 percent of what I eat, but I’m getting there. I eat from my garden year-round, and I credit Brandon with that. He helped me plan for that season and for upcoming seasons.”
Merchant, a punk rock guitarist in high school, says that during the recession he was inspired by the DIY culture of punk rock to pursue gardening. “Honestly, I just sort of taught myself. I read books, and I started gardening,” Merchant says. “I grew up a punk rocker and we had this do-it-yourself attitude. If you wanted a T-shirt, you made yourself a T-shirt. If you wanted tight pants, you stitched yourself some tight pants. You wanted a record, you put it out.”
He worked part time at a bookstore and read Peter Singer’s The Ethics of What We Eat and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s 2006 eye-opening best seller surveying the landscape of the American food system. Merchant moved on to gardening books, including Dave Owens’ Extreme Gardening. He attended gardening classes at the University of Arizona’s Garden Kitchen in South Tucson and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona—classes he eventually started teaching himself. And, finally, after hearing a story on NPR about two men who had started their own backyard garden installation business, Merchant thought, Hey, I can do that!
With small business loans and crowd funding, Merchant says he started SVG “from the ground up.” His first client, Anne Barrett, says she heard of Merchant through local farmers’ markets and the Food Bank. Initially, she says, she just wanted to help someone grow his business.
“I started asking around about someone who might know something about vegetable gardens, and Brandon’s name kept coming up,” says Barrett who has a sprawling property in midtown’s historic Blenman-Elm neighborhood. Four years later, Barrett has a lot to show for her faith and good will, including five three-feet-high planters—with tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and other vegetables—a large chicken coop, and a compost bin, all of which were built and installed by Merchant. When Barrett—who travels frequently for her job with a Fortune 500 tech company—is out of town, Merchant stops by at least twice a week to maintain the gardens, monitor her high-tech irrigation system, cultivate soil, and feed her chickens.
When Merchant first designed Barrett’s beds, she says, “Brandon would pull strings across the whole garden bed. He would perfectly plant seeds in those boxes. He computer graphed everything. And I loved it!”
Piccillo echoes Barrett’s sentiments.
“He was meticulous, for sure,” Piccillo says.
Merchant says he pays such great attention to detail because so many of his clients are “brand new gardeners, or perhaps a gardener that is new to the area.”
“I think, ‘Now, what is this person doing?’ They’re reading books, they’re Googling, they’re joining groups on Facebook, and they are getting all of this information and it is going to be super overwhelming,” he says. “It’s my goal to take all of that information and organize it in a way that makes sense to people, to offer it up in a practical way that they can apply in their gardens immediately.”
To that end, Merchant teaches gardening classes across Pima County, from the Food Bank to public libraries in Tucson, Sahuarita, Green Valley, and Ajo. He says that even though he teaches the same classes every season, he’s inspired by the enthusiasm of gardeners who are just starting out.
“If I see a picture of someone’s garden, and it’s huge, and bountiful, and lots of big plants and fruit, I sort of just shrug. That doesn’t inspire me very much,” Merchant says. “But when I see someone’s picture of their first dinky little pepper or tiny little tomato, and it’s their first one, and they’re so excited that they just had to take a picture, and their whole dinner will be centered around that one shriveled up little zucchini … To me, that is the most amazing thing, because I remember how I felt when I grew my first dinky little tomato and how great that feeling was. Teaching classes allows me to experience that enthusiasm season after season and I love it.”
Victory for America, one dinky little pepper at a time.
Joe Watson is an independent journalist who writes about community-building and social justice. Follow him on Twitter at @heyjoewatson.