As spring nudges, a look back at Victory Gardens
On my train trips into downtown Philadelphia, I would pass the remnants of a large community garden on a hill right near the tracks. Faded wooden structures, dead weeds, bald patches. It was wintertime and gardening had taken a break.
In the next few weeks and months, though, I expect to see folks out digging the earth back to life with greens and peas and tomatoes and just about anything else they can coax out of it – with a little help from Mother Earth herself. Who among us does not marvel at how little green and red stalks literally force their way through gray lifeless-looking earth to become crocuses, daffodils and tulips this time of year.
That garden must be a wonderful place to be and see in the spring and summer.
I got to thinking about vegetable and flower gardens this week when I came across a 1942 softcover manual called “Victory Backyard Gardens.” It was among a box lot of items I got at auction some months ago.
On the cover of the lightly torn and faded manual was a bounty of colorful vegetables. It’s a very simple book, in plain text, seemingly meant for city dwellers rather than the farm families who were planting and harvesting their own food as a way of life back then. It contained a statement from the then-Secretary of Agriculture urging Americans to produce food at home so the country could channel most of the rest of its food production to soldiers fighting in World War II.
The manual has illustrations and drawings on what tools to use (wooden rake, spading fork, draw hoe, spade, iron rake, manure fork), how to hang them on a wall when not in use, how to prepare the soil and what to plant – the things we now go to the Internet or our local garden shop to learn about.
It appeared to be written for men gardeners more than women because most of the references were to men (“An enthusiastic and able-bodied man with some experience of vegetable gardening cannot expect to cultivate more than 2,000 to 2,500 square feet as a spare-time venture. To do this he must work in his garden over the week-ends and almost every evening.”)
I had heard of “Victory Gardens,” but never knew much about them until flipping through this manual and Googling. It was serious stuff.
When President Roosevelt put out the call asking people to help the war effort by planting their own food, 20 million people obliged – following a practice begun during the first World War in the United States and other countries.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped lead the charge by planting a Victory Garden on the White House Lawn in 1943, to the chagrin of the Agriculture Department, whose officials thought it would hurt the food industry. She went ahead anyway.
The government distributed posters promoting the gardens. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released a cartoon Barney Bear’s Victory Garden showing people how to create a garden. Women’s magazines showed readers how to grow and preserve their crops. And books and manuals like the one I picked up at auction were published to do the same.
People planted gardens in backyards and school yards, on rooftops and vacant lots, and were producing about 40 percent of the country’s produce. By 1946, the planting seemed to have stopped, and in 1954, then-President Eisenhower installed a putting green over Roosevelt’s garden.
What was happening then is akin to what happens each year at hundreds of community gardens across the country, and what First Lady Michelle Obama is doing with her garden at the White House to promote healthy living and discourage obesity.
As for me, most of the gardening I do is with perennials. I’ve tried planting herbs from time to time: rosemary and basil in pots. I’ve even included a tomato plant here and there, and probably got a few tomatoes from them.
What I wish I could master are blackberries. I grew up on a farm in Georgia, and blackberries are among my most favorite fruits. I found a plant here once, placed it among the flowers in my backyard and waited for it to yield fruit. The plant still grows each year, but I haven’t seen fruit yet. Likely, I’m not working it right.
Soon, I’ll be back at the garden shops with my auction buddy Janet – we both love puttering in the garden just as much as we love auctions. But my plot of land is so small that I’m running out of space to grow new plants. This year, I’ll try annuals and maybe more herbs.
Read more about healthy living at our Healthy Southern Comforts blog by Fatimah Ali.