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Ginger Dawson: Covington has long history
of backyard gardening and it thrives today

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune Columnist

In Covington, Kentucky urban gardening has had a long, interesting history. From the earliest times of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Covingtonians have had their backyard gardens. Many times there were chickens, too. It was a slower, gentler era and people were not too far removed from the family farms that composed a large percentage of America’s early population. And, Covington’s German immigrants, with their Teutonic work ethic, were very handy at getting nature to work for them.

As time went on, the population became more urban in character. Rural ways were left behind and all became used to, and happy for, the convenience of grocery stores and restaurants. Housewives, in particular, were happy to not have to work so hard to get food on the table. Attitudes about food and health were non-issues. We were still too close to our early history of just simply surviving. Life went on, and people adapted to these changing lifestyles. Income played a large part in the food paths that people traversed as well, of course. If you weren’t a first-tier citizen, you probably always prepared your own meals (no household staff), didn’t eat out very often, if at all, and you may have continued to keep a garden. The Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties undoubtedly magnified these choices. Lucky was the person who kept a garden then! He could eat!

Time went on through the Twentieth Century. The Great Depression ended and prosperity took a few steps forward. Then, the American economy and society was given a serious jolt by the advent of World War II. All resources were directed to the war effort, and rationing of all types became a reality. You’ve probably heard stories of women painting lines up the backs of their legs to simulate nylon stockings. Parachutes needed all of the nylon we could produce.

Heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes

Food rationing was on. People were encouraged to establish Victory Gardens to provide additional food for soldiers, neighbors, and to supplement their own quota of food vouchers. Covington was most likely a patchwork of little gardens scattered everywhere. Even if World War I and prohibition may have soured our German population from contributing (that’s another story), they most likely stepped up to the plate.

After World War II, 1950s prosperity took off like a shot. The urban core was side-stepped for suburbia so all the little boomers could have a “Leave it to Beaver” childhood. Backyard vegetable gardens migrated mostly to the new bedroom communities surrounding the river basin. There were a few stalwarts in the urban core, but not many. Gardening acquired an old-fashioned reputation; described as “quaint”, “country” and God-forbid, “HILLBILLY”! Where are you shoes! Modern people liked the novelty of frozen vegetables, cake mixes and TV dinners.

Moving forward a few decades, we have a new generation that is intent on bringing gardening back to the urban core. Community gardens have sprung up everywhere. Wherever there is a vacant lot, a garden seems to have appeared! Neighbors have organized and restauranteurs have banned together to take advantage of this trend. Woe to the new restaurant who cannot boast of a patch of community dirt! This a great thing and those of us who garden have watched with interest, bemusement, and a feeling of solidarity.

Gardening Photo_225

So what happened with Covington urban gardening between the shift to the suburbs and the last five or so years?

Well, there were people like me. There were a handful of us. We didn’t really know each other because, well, gardening is a somewhat solitary pursuit and “community building” was not a part of our lexicon. In fact, the reason many of us (not just gardeners) live in the city is because we like the privacy and anonymity of urban life. Community building was for suburbanites. Keeping up with the Joneses. This is what drew us to an urban atmosphere.

But the world marches on and we must be a part of it. Because of social media, we have found each other. This is a good thing. We didn’t know we were out there! We are all ages, we live all over Covington and we share this one thing. Most of us have been gardening for many years. We have learned the hard way: by doing it. We think heirloom tomatoes are great. We also know they are difficult to raise usually, and their yields are lower. We see the value in, and prefer many times, hybrids for their disease resistance and higher yields. We understand that “hybrid” does not mean “GMO”. We are not terrified by insecticides, herbicides or fungicides. We understand that these products must be learned about and used judiciously only when necessary. We have a functional knowledge of chemistry (yes!). We have been at it long enough to know how to weigh hard work and futility. We also know that, even in Covington, deer suck! Those four legged vandals affect many gardens.

This is why gardening is so valuable. Life lessons beyond the garden’s edge. Long live Covington urban gardening! May our compost piles be forever hot!


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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