Doesn’t our current unprecedented lock-down seem as though we’re at war? But this is a war with an unseen, clearly virulent opponent. Communities are enforcing city-wide rules that parallel war-time regulations. Ravaged canned vegetable and fruit aisles echo as your shopping cart rattles through. Shortages, real or created from fear, are cropping up. “Essential workers” have been identified and are the front-line soldiers facing the enemy literally head-on.
Unfortunately, the parallels sound like wartime, don’t they?
“Victory gardens” are among the historic precedents citizens can choose during this pandemic. Most of us weren’t alive to endure the hardships two world wars, but the U.S. (along with the U.K., Canada and Australia) led the victory garden campaign. It started in WWI as a response to the demands war put on our food supply - not only to support our soldiers overseas, but to feed those at home. In 1917 Charles Pack organized the U.S. National War Garden Commission to formalize and encourage the creation of “war gardens” or “food gardens for defense”.
People were encouraged to dig up lawns and empty lots. Private and public lands were pressed into production to use every means available to grow food locally. Maximizing home food production allowed our own farm-grown food to be diverted not only to feed our military, but help those overseas whose farms became battlefields that couldn’t sustain peacetime production levels.
The campaign for “war gardens” served many other purposes beyond the practical goals of feeding Americans. It was seen as an enormous morale booster. While our soldiers were fighting this was something patriotic that an individual could do to support the effort. Growing at home/locally was seen as a way of increasing self-sufficiency, being able to eat well seasonally and sustainably. Perhaps these same reasons to grow-your-own still hold true, especially today.
Additionally, now we look at it as a way to know how our food has been grown, an incredibly valid reason to find a place for our own veggie gardens.
When WW II arrived victory gardens were once again officially government-promoted as a way of addressing food shortages. As the war intensified the labor supply at home to harvest and transport food shrank. Shortages started to mount. Spring 1942 saw the start of the “Food Rationing Program” which included commodities such as sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, meat and canned goods.
Spring 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt had the White House lawn dug up and turned into a vegetable garden. The U.S. School Garden Army encouraged children to do their part in the effort and become “soldiers of the soil”. By 1944 the estimated 20 million home victory gardens produced 30-40% of all fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in the U.S. that year. Staggering and impessive. And while communities had garden festivals and friendly competitions (whose was biggest, whose was best!) it was a way of uniting neighbors. History tells us that communities even traded home-grown produce. This echoes the current “local and organic” emphasis we value today.
Victory gardens played a meaningful part in the win and the quality of life during the war years. Sadly, with the war over victory gardens must have seemed less important so many people didn’t continue their food growing efforts. Since production hadn’t fully recovered from the war efforts food shortages appeared. And so it goes, lesson learned, lesson perhaps forgotten too quickly?
Most of us are home a lot now. Spring is here. We can already have the cold season crops in the garden. Warmer soils of May will mean we can get America’s favorite homegrown veggie, tomatoes, planted. It doesn’t get much more local than your own garden, does it? And with the kids out of school is this perhaps a good time to reduce ”techno time” and grow your own food together? You can enjoy exactly what your family likes because you’ve grown it to meet your needs. That kind of control is yet one more smart reason to grow your own veg-edibles, herbs and fruit.
Maybe it’s time to stage your own personal victory garden as we wait for the latest war to be won!
Check out and shop our Victory Garden online collection here.
Chalet Chief Horticulturist