21st Century Victory Gardens

by Terra Brockman

As it turns out, the advice of a century ago is just as true and relevant today.

"Save Money the Easy Way—Grow a Garden—Plant Today!”
“Grow Vitamins at Your Kitchen Door”
“Uncle Sam Says Garden to Cut Food Costs”

These calls to action are as valid today as they were during the last century, when the Liberty Gardens of World War I and Victory Gardens of World War II were called “America’s hidden weapon.” Throughout those wars, average citizens helped the United States cope with food shortages at home and abroad by planting gardens by the millions. The produce from those gardens fed families on the homefront, while allowing more food to be sent to American soldiers and Allies overseas.

Liberty Gardens
The first Liberty Gardens began just over 100 years ago in response to the severe food shortages in Europe. More and more people went hungry during World War I as farmers became soldiers, and farms became battlefields.

In March of 1917, just weeks before the United States entered the war, the National War Garden Commission was established. Its mission was to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort by planting, harvesting and storing their own fruits and vegetables, thus making more commercially grown and processed food available to our allies.

Posters told people they could “sow the seeds of victory” by planting gardens around their homes, schools and companies, and in parks and vacant lots. The Liberty Garden movement spread by word of mouth through women’s clubs, civic associations and chambers of commerce.

The government assisted by printing millions of pamphlets explaining how, when and where to plant. These pamphlets suggested the best crops to plant, and gave tips on dealing with pests and plant diseases. They also encouraged gardeners to be observant and record the germination rates of seeds, along with any diseases or insects they encountered, in order to minimize waste and improve their garden’s output the following year. Additional manuals were printed to instruct people how best to preserve the garden’s bounty through canning, drying or cellaring.

The federal Bureau of Education also launched a U.S. School Garden Army, which mobilized children as “soldiers of the soil.” Together, these efforts resulted in three million new garden plots planted in 1917 and more than 5.2 million in 1918, generating over a billion dollars’ worth of food.

Victory Gardens
The success of Liberty Gardens led U.S. Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard to begin promoting Victory Gardens shortly after the United States entered World War II. Federal and state governments jumped in and again produced posters and pamphlets with information and encouragement.

These pamphlets are as valid and helpful today as they were then. One particularly practical pamphlet, issued by the Illinois State Council of Defense, provides a detailed schematic for a “Victory Garden for a Family of Five.” It maps out how to plant over two dozen different vegetables on a 25 x 50-foot plot, and shows how to maximize productivity with succession planting and interplanting. For example, you can interplant early cabbage with tomatoes, or succession-plant carrots followed by late spinach. In this way, every square foot of the garden is put to use, and a steady supply of vegetables flows from late spring through late fall.

With the introduction of food rationing in the spring of 1942, Americans had an even greater incentive to grow their own fruits and vegetables wherever they could. And they did—growing beets, beans, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, onions, spinach, turnips and more in vacant lots, city parks, flower boxes and rooftops. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn.

In 1942, about 15 million families planted Victory Gardens, and by 1944 there were some 20 million gardens producing about eight million tons of food. By the war’s end, nearly half of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States were being grown in Victory Gardens.

21st Century Victory Gardens
Although the government’s promotion of Victory Gardens ended with the war, a grassroots interest in growing fresh, wholesome foods has re-emerged in the 21st century. The patriotic self-sufficiency of previous generations is now often framed as a declaration of independence from corporate control of our food. Whether you plant one pot of herbs on your windowsill, or tear up your entire lawn to plant vegetables, you are taking a step away from dependence on multinational companies and processed foods—and a step toward food independence and the empowerment that comes from growing your own healthy, delicious and nutritious foods.

Today, in backyards and community gardens, and of course, on the Internet, a new movement has captured the attention of people who want to lessen their reliance on mass-produced or imported food, reduce their carbon footprint, save on grocery bills and foster a sense of community. The icing on the cake (or the salt on the home-grown tomato!) is that all of these good things can be done while producing delicious food close to home.

It turns out that the slogans on those Victory Garden posters are as true and relevant today as they were a century ago. So start growing vitamins at your kitchen door and "Save Money the Easy Way — Grow a Garden — Plant Today!” iBi

Terra Brockman is a speaker, author and founder of The Land Connection, a nonprofit working to save farmland, train new organic farmers and connect consumers with fresh local foods.

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