Victory Gardens: Then and Now

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"Sow the seeds of Victory!" this poster proclaims.
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"Seeds must not be squandered... careless buying and use of seeds is unpatriotic."
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"Every successful Victory Garden is a blow to the enemy." declares the 1940 "Victory Garden Leader's Handbook," published by the USDA.
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Growing our own food is a long-standing American tradition.
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Slogans like "Food is ammunition — Don't waste it!" encouraged ordinary citizens to view their gardening activity as an essential part of the war effort.

During the two world wars, when opposing blocs of industrialized nations tried to conquer each other, infrastructure was strained to the breaking point, even in the United States. Feeding armies of millions of men required an inconceivable volume of food, leaving shortages on the home front. The cry went up for the public to raise as much food as possible on the home grounds. The public was exhorted to grow “victory gardens.” Today, victory gardens of a different kind are being grown throughout the land, although the situation appears quite different from that of wartime America.

World War I

The first mention of victory gardens occurred during World War I, in which the United States participated from 1917 to 1918. At the time, they were called “war gardens” or “liberty gardens.” In this country, the drive for victory gardens was spearheaded by Charles Lathrop Pack, who organized the National War Garden Commission. In The War Garden Victorious, published in 1919, Pack “wishing, as every patriot wished, to do a war work which was actually necessary, which was essentially practical, and which would most certainly aid in making the war successful, conceived the idea in March, 1917, of inspiring the people of the United States to plant war gardens in order to increase the supply of food.”

It was realized that enormous quantities of food could be produced in millions of family gardens, with no loss in crucial industrial man-hours (desperately needed in factories), and with no transportation expense, which in turn freed-up transportation for wartime uses. Other countries did the same. In fact, the American program was modeled upon earlier European programs. In Europe, where the war was mainly fought, food production had been devastated by initial fighting, years before the United States entered the war.

Neither television nor radio had been invented, but the major media of the day were utilized skillfully. Posters and advertisements in periodicals stressed that home food production was a key component to victory. One 1918 poster, still widely reproduced, depicts Lady Liberty, clad in red, white and blue, broadcasting seed, with her nose perhaps a trifle too high in the air. The caption read: “Sow the seeds of Victory… every garden a munitions plant.” Another, none too subtle, exhorted the American public to “Can Vegetables, Fruit, and the Kaiser too.”

Not only was the food itself crucial, but the program had a major effect upon morale (and therefore, on public support for the war), giving the folks at home an important task, and making everyone feel a part of the war effort. In the amazingly short span of a couple of seasons, some 5 million new gardens were created, which produced some $1.2 billion worth of food!

World War II

By the time of the Second World War, some 20 years later, radio and newsreels had become major media sources. The war also lasted longer. In response to slogans like “Garden for Victory” and “Plant a Victory Garden—our food is fighting,” gardens were squeezed into backyards, parks, schools, and other public lands.

Publications appeared, like the 1940 “Victory Garden Leader’s Handbook,” published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Such pamphlets educated the public how to efficiently garden and advised erstwhile leaders how to work with individuals to enhance the Victory Gardens’ productivity. Would-be Victory gardeners were counseled over each aspect of planting their gardens, starting with careful planning. Choices should be limited to those crops that stood a reasonable chance of yielding a harvest. Beginners were cautioned to avoid planting more than they could maintain as summer wore on—still sound advice! Soil amendment, fertilizers, and weed and pest control were explained, frequently couched in quasi-military jargon. One publication, not mincing words, admonished: “Insects call for a snappy counter-attack—don’t let your victory gardener be dismayed at the onslaught of greedy bugs, any more than at the fifth column of weeds. “[B]last the miniature Japanazis in a hurry.”

Production of foodstuffs wasn’t the only aspect stressed in the Victory Gardens campaigns. One publication, pointing out that the loss of Malayan tin supplies (Malaya was occupied by the Japanese in 1941) had resulted in a shortage of canned goods, attempted to convince victory gardeners to preserve some of their produce. Canning was recommended, and special sugar rations were allowed to persons engaged in canning their home-grown produce. (Use of a pressure cooker was strongly advised for most crops.) Other methods included root-cellaring and in-ground storage, drying, pickling, and a relatively novel method: freezing. Families were advised to rent lockers at local quick-freezing plants to store fruits, vegetables, meats and poultry.

The result was that some 20 million Victory Gardens were planted, which produced a staggering 10 million tons of fruits and vegetables, an amount nearly equal to the total commercial production of the time!

Today, the situation might seem very different. There’s no major war effort, after all, and food is plentiful and cheap. However, most of this food supply is tainted by chemicals: pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics. And of course, much of it also contains GMO products. Take away the toxic portion of the food supply and a very different picture emerges: pure food is expensive and certainly not uniformly available.

In the last couple of decades, public awareness of the toxic nature of Big Food has increased dramatically. While we may not call them Victory Gardens today—but perhaps we should—folks are turning to growing their own food as a means of economically filling the shortfall.

Below is a list of a World War II seed catalog.

Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare-seed production at Baker Creek Seed Company since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, owns and operates, which grows and ships strictly heirloom veggie starts, and has recently relocated to Maine. You can follow the development of his new farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.

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