A History of Victory Gardens
By Chris Colby
“V” is for victory. During World War II, May 8 was VE-Day, the day victory was declared in Europe. However, for United States and British citizens during both world wars, “V” also stood for vegetable.
During both conflagrations, our troops needed to be fed, and everyday Americans supported them on the home front. Although there was no food rationing in the U.S. during WWI, slogans such as “Food Will Win the War,” “Meatless Meals,” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” encouraged citizens to cut back in order to aid the war effort. The concept of a “war garden” came from Charles Lathrop Pack, in 1917. His idea was that food production could be increased without expanding commercially cultivated land and without the need for additional agricultural labor. This was important given the number of farmers entering military service.
In the spring of 1942, months after the U.S. entered WWII, sugar was rationed. In order to purchase sugar, you needed a government voucher. By the end of the war, several other items were rationed. Every American could receive a ration book, which gave them the vouchers required to purchase coffee, meat, canned fish, canned milk, cheese, butter, and fats. And a point system limited the number of food items that could be purchased. While food was being rationed, families sometimes had to get creative with what ingredients they had.
Magazines and publications ran recipes that featured sweeteners other than sugar, and oleo instead of butter. My mother, who lived with her parents on an Iowa farm during WWII, recalls eating immature field corn — before the kernels hardened — as a way of stretching their food supply. The Kraft corporation’s boxed macaroni and cheese, then labeled Kraft Dinner, became popular among households who were used to having meat for dinner. Two boxes could be obtained for only one ration point (in addition to the cost). Many other nonfood items, such as gasoline and tires, were also rationed, and the nation pulled together to support the war effort and troops fighting overseas.
During both world wars, the government urged citizens to plant war gardens, later coined “victory gardens,” and other countries, including Canada, endorsed war gardens. Victory gardens helped our nation during wartime in many ways. Vegetables grown at home freed up commercially grown vegetables to be shipped to those fighting in Europe or in the Pacific. It reduced the need to truck produce from farms to supermarkets, therefore reducing fuel consumption, saving on rubber tires, and allowing some transport vehicles to be pressed into military service. And the gardens were a morale booster, giving civilians something positive to contribute to support our troops and to feel involved.
Scope and success
Americans responded, partly out of patriotism and partly for practical reasons. Some 20 million American gardens were sown under “the seeds of victory” campaign by the end of WWII. This exceeded expectations of 6 million country gardens and 12 million city and suburban gardens the government had hoped to achieve. Eleanor Roosevelt, despite protests from the Department of Agriculture, even planted a victory garden on the White House lawn.
In rural areas, people were used to gardening, and existing gardens were simply expanded. Backyard chicken coops became much more common. In suburban and urban areas, people turned vacant lots into farms, and city parks were cultivated, especially those near a bus or trolley line so fuel would not be wasted driving to them. Apartment dwellers gardened on their roofs and in window boxes. At schools, portions of playgrounds were tilled and tended, and the produce became part of the school lunches.
The victory garden program was not just a feel-good movement or a way to distract the populace — it produced impressive results. In 1944, 40 percent of the vegetables grown in the U.S. came from victory gardens. Victory gardens are estimated to have produced between 9 and 10 million tons of produce during the course of WWII. Ironically, in post-war 1946, when the government stopped promoting victory gardens and many Americans did not plant a spring garden, there were food shortages in the summer.
The success of these gardens extended into communities that formed cooperatives and planned what would be grown. A victory garden committee was headed by a victory garden chairman, who planned the community’s gardening effort and encouraged people to participate. The chairman urged women’s groups, FFA chapters, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, and others to work in the community gardens. Even in places where people simply grew what they wanted, there was extensive bartering. Victory gardens filled a void that commercial farmers could not.
A helping hand
Government publications laid out the basics for gardeners, many who had never gardened in their lives. Publications at the time ran stories about all aspects of gardening. The short government booklets covered a lot of ground, from garden planning through food preservation, and gardeners were urged to not overlook the opportunity for a fall garden. Charts with the yield of various vegetables helped families plan how much to plant. Gardeners were encouraged to use a combination of commercial fertilizers and manure to enrich and build their soil. Interestingly, the now-common method of planting seeds densely, then culling down to the proper spacing after the plants have sprouted, was discouraged as it was a waste of seed.
Gardening requires tools, but many tools are made of steel, and steel was needed for the war effort. Gardeners were advised to get by with a minimal set of garden tools, and borrowing tools from neighbors or cooperatives was encouraged wherever possible. Advice on water and weeding was provided, and the pamphlet author must have personally known the drudgery of weeding. Thus the need to inspire gardeners to get it done when he said, “Nothing brings a feeling of futility like a weed-filled garden on a hot summer afternoon. But nothing is as gratifying as the same garden an hour or two later when the weeds are all down and the vegetables are standing forth proudly again in military rows.”
Some of the more region-specific details, including how to combat local insects, were deferred to knowledgeable local gardeners or university extension services.
The government publications recommended vegetables that were high-yielding, nutrient-dense, and easy to grow. For a small garden, gardeners were to plant snap and lima beans (both bush and pole), tomatoes, carrots, beets, kale, turnips, cabbage, onions, radishes, and New Zealand spinach. And planting times were described for those unfamiliar with the growing season. Victory gardens were responsible for introducing U.S. gardeners to Swiss chard and kohlrabi, both of which were recommended to large-scale gardeners as being easy to grow.
Seed companies got in on the act, and in 1942, North Dakota-based Oscar H. Will & Co. sold a “Defense Garden Collection,” including 16 vegetables with enough seed to plant a 2,000-square-foot garden. The collection cost 1.25 dollars, and later 1.35 dollars. The name of the collection changed to the Victory Garden Collection in 1944, and then to the Pioneer Home Garden Collection in 1945, at which time it would have set you back 1.60 dollars.
The victory garden movement stressed proper storage and food preservation. Tomatoes, it was noted, could be canned with ordinary kitchen items. However, canning other vegetables required a pressure canner. Like garden tools, pressure canners were made of metal, and thus people were encouraged to coordinate with neighbors or local cooperatives for community canning events. Folks would also can commercially grown goods. At harvest time, many families would buy a crate of fruits or vegetables that did not grow in their region, and they would can them for use in winter. Canning became progressively more widely practiced as the war continued. In 1943, some 315,000 pressure canners were sold in the U.S., an increase from a total of 66,000 in 1942.
Other methods of preservation included storing produce like squash, pumpkins, and suitable root vegetables in a root cellar. Fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches could be dried, as could vegetables like beans, corn, and okra. And these forms of preservation required no energy expenditure, either. Foods were frozen, pickled, and fermented, but brewing beer or making wine was not encouraged, as it was not considered the most efficient food source.
The Allies won WWII for a variety of reasons, one of them being the homegrown vegetables produced in more than 20 million victory gardens in the U.S. Food shortages during the war could have led to starvation — as was the case in many war-torn European countries — were it not for the level of food production by civilians in their backyard gardens. Victory gardens allowed food to move from a person’s garden, whether at their home or in a local park or unused plot of land, to their table without requiring costly transportation. The fuel, tire rubber, and metal saved by this played a nontrivial role in keeping our troops equipped to fight.
Start a community garden to grow food and meet the neighbors.
Chris Colby lives in Texas and is an avid vegetable gardener. His love of WWII history and gardening led to his research on victory gardens and civilian participation in WWII. He has written several articles on fruit and vegetable varieties, and last year, he wrote a book on beer brewing, Home Brew Recipe Bible (2016, Page Street Publishing).
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