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.
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.