Like other avid gardeners, I collect gardening catalogs. To me, they represent life, productivity and the promise of family, good food and good health.
I also study and write about Victory Gardens. The Victory Garden model enables me to proactively and positively respond to challenges in a way that I find empowering in these unsettling times. In a world that is challenged in so many ways, I find gardens of all sorts a refuge of optimism. We need fewer bad things in this world and more good gardens. Some object to the wartime framing of Victory Gardens. Victory Gardens were an important part of our nation’s home front mobilization during both world wars. That’s simply an historical fact. However, I think that there are ways to take the positive messages from those programs and reimagine them for our use today.
In hard times, Americans have always turned to gardening. The Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II – and the garden efforts of the Great Depression – helped Americans weather hard times. These school, home and community gardens helped the family budget, improved dietary practices, reduced the food mile and saved fuel.
They also enabled America to export more food to our allies; beautified communities; empowered every citizen to contribute to a national effort; and bridged social, ethnic, class and cultural differences during times when cooperation was vital. Gardens were an expression of solidarity, patriotism, and shared sacrifice. They were everywhere…schools, homes, workplaces, and throughout public spaces all over the nation. No effort was too small. Americans did their bit. And it mattered.
We were a nation of gardeners, and that activity had far-ranging implications in many aspects of American social, cultural and political life.
Consider this: In WWI, the Federal Bureau of Education rolled out a national school garden program and funded it with War Department monies. Millions of students gardened at school, at home and in their communities. A national Liberty Garden (later “Victory Garden”) program began that called on all Americans to garden for the nation and the world. The success of home gardeners (and careful food preservation) helped the U.S. increase exports to our European allies and enabled Americans – immigrant and native-born, rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban, all ethnicities – to express support for their nation through the simple act of gardening.
The WWII experience was equally successful. During 1943, some polls reported that 3/5ths of Americans were gardening, including Vice President Henry Wallace, who gardened with his son. That same year, according to some estimates, nearly 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed stateside were grown in school, home and community gardens. In addition to providing much-needed food, gardening helped Americans unite around a positive activity. Gardens gave Americans a way to offer service to the nation, enabling citizens on the home front to make significant contributions to the war effort.
The world again finds itself in challenging times. School, home and community gardens – modern Victory Gardens, if you will – provide a way to respond positively to this period of uncertainty and change.