Gardening is Good for the Soul

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Editor Oscar H. Will III and one of his mulefoot pigs, Daffodil.
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This 1920 seed catalog is a testament to the impact of gardening, and seeds, on Editor Oscar H. Will III (Hank).
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Victory Gardens took off during the Second World War, and today's form is the Freedom Garden.

It might be because 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 their forbears, 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 inherent in the act of gardening; 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 experiences, ethnicity and social stratum into an amalgam of healthy urban culture. 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. The American workforce was engaged in producing materiel; farmers headed off to active duty by the thousands. Armies needed to be fed, 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. Participants collectively took up the cause and planted gardens in unlikely and likely places. The 1918 effort produced more than $500 million in homegrown food. War gardening did much to keep the country marching on, but it also brought people together, and it was good for 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 country and for our souls.

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 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 the economic climate. Grit blogger Paul Gardner turned me on to this movement. Check out his blog  at, to see how the program got its start.

To support you with all your journeys through 2009, we’ve added sections to the magazine and website that are filled with fun facts, videos and useful tidbits for everything from saving money to understanding the weather to gardening to fishing. Our partners at Farmers’ Almanac and Farmers’ Almanac TV have opened their archives so we can bring you some of the best rural lore and wisdom out there. Whatever it is you want to do, your friends at Farmers’ Almanac know just when in 2009 you will want to do it. 

Whether it’s tending a gaggle of geese, milking a herd of sheep or planting a shelter belt, we’d love to know what you are up to this season. If you keep a country journal and would like to share it through a blog at, just let me know (

See you in May.

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 Google+.