Victory Gardens in the United States
By Teresa Carstensen
When the going gets tough, the tough get… gardening?
Victory Gardens, originally called war gardens, got started during WWI. The motivation was the need for extra food supplies to feed U.S. allies in Europe and our own soldiers once we entered the war. When the U.S. National War Garden Commission was organized by Charles Lathrop Pack in 1917, they realized that home production of food could both ease the burden on the general food supply and make citizens feel like they were doing their part to help the war effort. This mindset is reflected in a period seed catalog from the Wagner Park Nursery Co. in Sidney, Ohio. They emphasized that “Every patch of ground can be made to do service in saving the world for democracy. And it is work in which women can share, too.”
The Commission started promoting the war garden effort, encouraging people to plant gardens on private and public land. Using funding from the Department of War, the United States School Garden Army was created with the aim of getting school children to take part in the gardening. These agencies produced posters appealing to the patriotism of potential gardeners. Educational materials were published to help people learn how to both garden and to can and preserve their crops so that they could enjoy them year-round. Private citizens also happily engaged in helping their fellows learn how to raise food effectively.
The effort worked. By the end of the war, there were estimated to be 5 million gardens in this country. The gardens became more commonly known as Victory Gardens at that point.
When the U.S. officially entered WWII in December 1941, government agencies immediately organized another push for Victory Gardens. They again produced promotional and educational materials for the masses. Information was distributed through newsreels and radio programs, as well as through printed materials. They touted that gardening was patriotic, saved money, improved your health, and might spark a new hobby. The food rationing that began in January 1942 gave extra motivation to Americans to supplement their rations with food that they could grow themselves.
Resources for beginners to learn how to garden were plentiful. Gardening-related companies jumped on the bandwagon, publishing booklets on how to get started. Like the government publications, they played up the patriotic aspects of gardening. In How to Make a Victory Garden, the Union Fork and Hoe Company reminded readers that “your garden tools are now weapons in an all-out war.”
They weren’t the only ones to provide helpful information. Companies in general produced gardening manuals for their employees. Private citizens wrote books on gardening. Sometimes these touched on subjects not covered by the government publications, such as winter gardening and uncommon, low-resource gardening methods. Gardening clubs sprung up, giving the gardeners a greater sense of this being a communal war effort.
The materials from the government gave a feel for how serious the need for the gardens was and how limited resources were. They sensibly pointed out that people should not waste manpower or seeds on garden plots that were not likely to be successful either due to poor placement or the gardener overwhelming himself with a larger garden than he could handle. They gave stern warnings of seed shortages and urged people to use no more seeds than they absolutely required.
Despite the need for gardens, they told people not to dig up nicely landscaped lawns to grow food on. The reasoning was that those tended to have poor soil quality. Eleanor Roosevelt ignored that and had part of the White House lawn dug up for a Victory Garden as an inspiration to others. If the First Lady could have a Victory Garden, so could they.
Some of the advice in the pamphlets would surprise modern people. The Garden for Victory pamphlet, put out by the Agricultural Extension Service in 1943, included dandelion greens in their list for a year’s food supply for one person. While they are now commonly thought of as weeds, the lowly plant is rich in nutrients. Nutrition was a big concern. The 1943 Department of Agriculture Victory Gardens pamphlet noted that “Americans, as a group, have not been eating enough of those foods that are rich in the minerals and vitamins necessary for good growth and health.” Yes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture admonished people to eat their veggies. Gardening pamphlets typically included information on the nutritional value of various plants. To help people track their nutritional intake, Vita-Min-Go, Inc. even made a game for it.
Once again, children were encouraged to take part. The Clinton Parent Teacher Association sent out a letter to its members pointing out the value in getting them involved. They wrote, “Our children will definitely feel that they are helping in the war effort by not only conserving food but actually helping produce it.” They provided a list of activities that the Clinton School had planned for the kids. One of them was creating “garden plans with the actual measurements as virtual arithmetic,” making the project educational as well as patriotic.
The WWII Victory Garden movement was even more successful than in the previous war. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that by the end of the war, over 20 million gardens had been planted.
The Victory Garden movement was revived in March, 2020, when fears about the COVID-19 pandemic led to hoarding and food shortages. Victory Garden groups began popping up all over social media. Gardening experts on YouTube started focusing their videos on how-tos for beginning gardeners and ways to grow food quickly. Echoing the fears from WWII, seed supplies in stores quickly sold out.
There are differences between the current Victory Garden movement and the ones during the two world wars. In the earlier movements, the government took the lead in encouraging the gardens. This time, the movement started when everyday people spontaneously took it upon themselves to start gardens and help others to do so. During the wars, people were warned to only garden if they had appropriate space in their yard. The new gardening movement has people look for ways to utilize the space they have. Apartment dwellers are being encouraged to grow vegetables in containers, on vertical structures, or on windowsills. There is greater emphasis on the idea that even if you can’t grow all the produce you need, every bit helps. Less labor-intensive methods, such as no-till gardening, are being promoted. Gardeners are being steered towards planting single crops in square foot units, allowing more plants to be sown in a space than planting in rows allowed for. These differences are a reflection of general trends in modern home food gardening.
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