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Gardening is Good for the Soul

By Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief

Tags: gardens, gardening, history, community, vegetables,

War Garden Poster

It might be that I grew up in a seed-producing family, or that I had the privilege of biting into North Dakota grown tomatoes right from the field … still warm from the sun. It might also be that the miracle of drawing food from the earth, using little more than a tiny seed and a bit of effort, captivated me from the very beginning. Perhaps I am genetically predisposed to raise a crop because my ancestors, and theirs, in turn, did just that. In any case, I discovered at a very young age that vegetable gardening is good for the soul.

Many eloquent essays have been written on the healing powers the act of gardening possesses; urban planners in New York City learned that community gardens were not worthless areas of idyllic pastoral tranquility, but the glue that bonded people of different experience, ethnicity and social stratum into an amalgam of healthy urban culture. They learned the lesson the hard way with the DOME garden project on west 84th street. Community gardening, minimizes differences and heals hurts. Community gardening is good for the soul.

During the First World War, the National War Garden Commission was formed in the United States; its mission was to promote gardening, ostensibly as an act of patriotism. The American workforce was engaged in producing materiel; farmers were headed off to active duty by the thousands. Armies needed to be fed, but every bit as important, those left behind needed to be fed … and they needed to know they were doing their part. The War Garden program brought the most likely and unlikely of people together. They collectively took up the cause and planted gardens in unlikely and likely War Gardens Victoriousplaces. The 1918 effort produced more than $500-million in homegrown food.  No doubt War Gardening did much to keep the country marching on, but it also brought people together and helped heal their suffering souls.

During the Great Depression, gardening again became a matter of life for many folks. Unemployed and unappreciated souls found physical and psychological solace in stirring the soil and nurturing their own nourishment from the earth. Early psychologists reported that humans thrived when there was a firm connection between culture and nature … they prescribed gardening as therapy for malaise. Vegetable gardening was good for depression-era souls.

The Second World War helped bring about an end to the Great Depression; the Victory Garden served as a rallying cry for those left at home. Like the War Gardens before them, Victory Gardens produced a phenomenal amount of food. Victory Gardening was good for the soul, and the country, in spite of the fact that it lacked economies of scale.

Today’s economic climate offers an excellent excuse to get gardening once again; it’s already beginning to happen in a somewhat organized fashion. The new program … a grass-roots program at that … is called Freedom Gardening. Freedom Gardens bring the concept of Victory Gardens into the 21st century and take it one paradigm further by suggesting that we grow our own food no matter what the economic climate is. GRIT blogger Paul Gardner turned me on to this movement. I hope he will post a blog about how the concept developed and got off the ground.

1919 Oscar Will catalog back cover: Feed the world.

In the meantime, grab all the seed catalogs you can. Get all the good information available. And at the very least plant a single-crop garden this year. Take it from me, and millions of others around the globe. Gardening is good for the soul.

1935 Dollar Home Garden Offer from Oscar Will Co.

Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

paul gardener
1/21/2009 1:46:19 PM

Hi Hank, Just a quick FYI for you. Grit-online has been referenced on the Little Homestead in the City blog today. (That's the Dervaes family from Freedom Gardens.) Thought you'd be interested. P~

hank will_1
1/8/2009 6:59:18 PM

Hey Paul -- I have been really encouraged by this whole discussion. Thanks for your enthusiasm and support. Mike, please accept my apology for referring to you as Steve. My only excuse is age combined with the multi-tasking day from ???? today at the office. When I went to shut down my computer at work this evening, I had 4 partially answered, but not sent email messages open. 2009 is off to a great start overall, though. Paul and Mike, I completely agree that information must be sifted from agenda on many websites ... other media outlets, social organizations, you name it. But at the end of the day, we are equipped to sort through the logic, illogic, passion, creativity, ignorance, wisdom, etc. on our own ... if only we will make the effort. That, I think, is part of the beauty of being human.

paul gardener
1/8/2009 2:38:37 PM

Hi Hank, First off let me again say thanks for broaching this topic. I really think it's just so fundamental a thing to talk about with regard to so many other issues. I do want to take a second to agree with what Mike Taylor said earlier, there are a lot of sites out there with an agenda that needs to be parsed through. To a certain extent Freedom Gardens does as well in that it also deals a lot with sustainability issues and "greening". As long as the agenda doesn't overshadow the information on the source however, I count it as valuable. P~

hank will_2
1/8/2009 11:40:02 AM

Eve -- That is a wonderful resource. Thanks for posting it, and for taking the time to comment. I see that our system still causes double posting ... we have been vexed by this glitch from the beginning. It has something to do with posting as you sign up, I think. Please don't be a stranger. Hank

hank will_2
1/8/2009 11:37:49 AM

Thanks much for your input and advice Steve. I have been captivated by the Freedom Gardens site. And I appreciate your commentary on sorting through the hysteria, so to speak. Hank

1/8/2009 11:31:31 AM

Another great resouce to find out what will grow in your area and when to plant it is a new site called worldfoodgarden (dot) org. It is also a place where new gardeners can find a garden mentor to help them with questions and it showcases the World's First Map of Small Food Gardens!

1/8/2009 11:30:40 AM

Another great resouce to find out what will grow in your area and when to plant it is a new site called worldfoodgarden (dot) org. It is also a place where new gardeners can find a garden mentor to help them with questions and it showcases the World's First Map of Small Food Gardens!

mike taylor
1/8/2009 9:41:55 AM

Here is a list of all state's Master Gardener programs

mike taylor
1/8/2009 9:00:59 AM

Thanks for nice article. It is a good distillation of a lot of information on both the background of Victory Garden movement, the reasons we all need to think about growing our own food, and for mentioning Freedom Gardens (I'm Mike_T on Freedom Gardens ( Some of us on FG are long time gardeners, some a brand new gardeners, and all are welcome. There are some other really good sites that also deal with the Victory Garden movement, some with a political / social agenda, some from a gardener's point of view. Care should be taken with the sites with agendas as the information presented is often biased to the promote cause, selectively edited, meant to still up fear and hysteria, and often just plain wrong. All gardening advice is extremely location dependent. Advice I give for our Mediterranean Southern California climate is totally wrong for my friends 20 miles inland, and considered wild ravings in the northeast or deep south. One of the best places to get information pertinent to your own situation is your state's land-grant college's extension program, the Agricultural and Natural Resources agency, and/or you state's Master Gardener program. The MG program is nation-wide, and the information presented is localize to that state and thoroughly researched. Our local University Extension puts up the Victory Grower web site (; it is a source of research-backed, historical and general information.