Victory Gardens Exposed

Fake Vicotry?

Fake Victory?

I’ve been reading Kitchen gardening in America : a history / by David M. Tucker. It’s a really fascinating overview of who grew personal vegetable gardens, what they grew, the techniques they used, and their philosophical outlook on gardening from colonial times through about 1980. After the cut, I shall ramble on endlessly about three main points:

  • How “Three Sisters” gardens were actually planted
  • The fact that from 1941-1943, personal vegetable plots were labeled “UNPATRIOTIC” by the US Government (yeah, this one made me stand on my head…)
  • Why I found this book much more inspiring than Patricia Klindienst’s The Earth Knows My Name

Three Sisters Gardening

Finally – FINALLY – I find a description based on actual observations of how an Iroquois-style “three sisters” garden was laid out. Corn was planted in hills 3′ apart. Four kernels of corn were placed in each hill. The presence of fish is debatable; it’s quite possible Squanto learned this trick when he was in England. In any case, the fish in question would have been alewife or other small fish that spawn upstream in huge masses. The beans were *not* planted at the same time – the corn was given a good head start. Squash was planted last, either between the hills, or on any hills that didn’t sprout their corn. Additionally, a fourth sister, sunflower, was planted at the edges of the field.

Victory Gardens

Holy cow. I’m looking at “victory gardens” a whole new way now. I’ll try to be succinct.

During WWI, people planted “war gardens” to ensure they would have enough to eat. A non-government-affiliated civilian, Charles Pack, created the National Emergency Food Garden Commission. The government got rather ticked off at him for rallying such support, especially with a name that implied federal endorsement. However, once war was declared in 1917, the government did endorse War Gardens and put one in on the White House lawn.

When WWII came around, the USDA went on the offensive to ensure no Charles Packs would emerge. Why? The official line was that no amateur gardener could harvest enough food to make it worth the expenditure of seeds and chemical fertilizer, which was now preferred over manure. (Keep in mind chemical fertilizer and bombs are made of the same stuff.) My hunch is also that large farmers didn’t want the competition and the government wanted the illusion of normalcy. Within a couple weeks of Pearl Harbor, they were letting the country know that there should be NO repeat of the war garden effort, and in fact said that home gardening was unpatriotic. Eleanor Roosevelt was told there was no suitable place to plant a garden near the White House when she asked in 1941. Tearing out part of the Rose Garden was expressly forbidden, as that would be completely at odds with the “official” message of the day – that digging up ornamentals was a rash, panicky action and we’ll be having none of that, thank you.

For two years, local Victory Garden boards fought this government slander and continued their efforts to plow up parks, create community gardens, give away seeds, and help folks garden. Finally, in 1943, the USDA admitted there might be shortages of certain foods (mostly veggies) because large commercial farmers were being asked to focus on staples like wheat. Canned goods were rationed for the first time. The number of Victory Gardens skyrocketed, Eleanor got her Victory Garden, and finally the USDA started putting out all those pretty posters implying that gardening was a good thing to do to help the war effort.

In 1944, rationing of canned goods ended, and 30% of the victory gardens shut down. The Victory Garden campaign continued to the end of the war, but numbers of gardens kept decreasing. (Though curiously, sales of seeds never fell off.

So what do we learn from this?

  • The People have always led the gardening movement.
  • Whenever we feel our food system is insecure, we grab shovels and plant gardens.
  • When food is plentiful and cheap, gardening slacks off.
  • Government gardening propaganda has little effect on numbers of gardens.
  • Giving people space, dirt, compost, seeds, and tools has an astounding effect on local food production.

Why I found this book so inspiring

I can relate to this book. One of the amazing things is shows is the cycles American kitchen gardening has gone through over time. The boom-and-bust of Victory Gardens is one; the move from manure to chemicals and back to manure is another. Ideas that I thought were fairly new turned out to be decades or centuries old: double-dug raised beds; teaching troubled kids to garden; the interdependence of plants, worms, and fungi in good soil.

I like feeling connected to a history of gardeners. And it turns out, people from many backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic strata all garden for similar reasons I do: because they want a sure supply of healthy food; because they like working outdoors with living plants; and because they love to tinker and see what they can accomplish with their own two hands. When times get tough, we plant more gardens. They may not last, but maybe they don’t need to. They’ll come back when the need comes back.

I found Kitchen Gardening in America by accident when I went to pick up The Earth Knows My Name. Klindienst profiles a number of gardeners of different ethnicities. The profiles are interesting, but they very much “someone else’s garden.” I don’t come from a strong gardening tradition, unlike all the folks in her book. My family members have always had gardens, but I didn’t learn rituals of corn planting at my grandmother’s knee. All these folks talk about the legacy they’re leaving their own children, and as kids are not likely in my future, that put a little more distance between me and these gardeners. I *could* see myself in Tucker’s book – not only in my own garden, but as part of several larger gardening movements. So – both are worth a read, but Kitchen Gardening in America is the book that made me want to redouble the size of my garden this weekend.

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10 Comments

  1. Leasmom said,

    October 23, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Victory Gardens are now called Freedom Gardens. It is amazing how with the economy going asunder, everyone is turning back to controlling their food supply…Its good to learn the history of things, to give you a foundation for your work. It does connect you to people of the past…

  2. October 23, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    What a great post. I’m so glad you read the book and let us in on it.

    I started veggie gardening after retirement because I wanted to try my hand at providing healthy food for our table. Economics had nothing to do with my decision since between soil amendments, seeds, water, tools and fertilizer, it really is not less expensive to grow your own.

    The idea that Victory Gardens would be unpatriotic seems bizarre.
    And! I didn’t know Freedom Gardens was the new name for wartime gardening.

    Martha in Muskogee OK zone 7

  3. Ken said,

    October 23, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    How very very curious! The mind bogges. (Watch: *boggle*. That was my mind.)

    Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Gina said,

    October 26, 2008 at 8:19 am

    Interesting the way we “remember” history, isn’t it? I am going to have to read this book!

  5. Oldnovice said,

    October 26, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Economics had nothing to do with my decision since between soil amendments, seeds, water, tools and fertilizer, it really is not less expensive to grow your own.

    Hah! Same here. Just unearthed my sweet-potato bed today. The leaves were turning yellow and I lifted them a bit to feel big bulges beneath the newspaper I’d used to keep mosture in. Didn’t dig down, because as I did, the potatoes became smaller. Don’t know if they’ll grow more leaves or not, but felt it important to get what I could out of the bed before the local critters got to it. 8 potatoes from the top.

  6. October 27, 2008 at 11:42 am

    [...] historically given people a sense of self-sufficiency and satisfaction, even when the government tried to discourage such populist efforts, and I think that given the state of the economy, we will see many more [...]

  7. Julie said,

    March 14, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Wonderful post. Thanks for this, I’m going to have to look up that book. I’ve often wondered why people turned to grass lawns after the war. I thought it was a status symbol. Unfortunately, too many people still want grass lawns.

    This year I’m greatly expanding my heirloom vegetables. I’m looking forward to it!

  8. akimble said,

    March 16, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks for the tip on the book. I too am expanding my garden. I love getting my children involved. We’ve started a bunch of seeds indoors and my 4 yr old son checks the sprouts everyday. Organic Tomatoes have become so expensive. Now they are plentiful right out our back door. I am hoping to work with my neighbors this year to share our harvests. As you may know, Victory Gardens have been around since the 1800s. England has a long history of Victory Gardens.
    Keep up the research!

  9. March 24, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    This is a really great review of what sounds like a fascinating book. I like learning more than the “sound bite” history I’m getting of Victory Gardens right now.

    I’m all for planting vegetable gardens (herbs and fruits, too). I think there’s lots of reasons growing vegetables (especially in vacant lots in the cities, for example) is healthy–physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I feel a little sad that a large group of people don’t think about growing some of their own food until they are in and economic pinch. But, hey. Maybe the economy will bring them to gardening’s door, and the joy of it will make them stay for a lifetime.

  10. Mary Ann said,

    March 24, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Thanks for the great post. Will keep reading those history books.


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