Victory Gardens

By The Old House Web

By Deborah Holmes

One of the WPA posters from the Northwestern University Library collection.

As the mother of two teenage boys, I'm more than a little uneasy about an impending military strike on Iraq, and talk of biological and chemical attacks and terrorism here in America.? So I'm going to plant some cabbage ... and tomatoes, and beans and beets and broccoli and summer squash and onions...

Like my parents and grandparents did during World War II, I want to plant a Victory Garden. Americans in 1941 embraced the idea of turning yards, vacant lots, ball fields, parks, and even tiny strips of grass between row houses into fertile ground for vegetables. There's comfort in growing one's own food, and in the certainty that tiny seedlings will grow into robust plants. By 1944, 20 million Americans planted Victory Gardens, producing one million tons a year of vegetables -- about half the the amount consumed in America.

Bright colored posters produced for the government by artists from the Work Progress Administration (WPA) encouraged Americans to "Fight with Food." Vegetables grown in home gardens, the government reasoned, would not only lighten the burden of food rationing, but would free up supplies needed for troops fighting in Europe. The appealing combination of self-sufficiency and patriotism made the Victory Garden effort arguably the most successful civilian wartime program.

Apparently, I'm not alone in my romancing of Victory Gardens. Edible gardens are enjoying a mini-resurgence these days. The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service Web site opines "Now is an excellent time to begin your own Victory Garden!" and offers to mail a packet of information to residents to get them going.? This year, the Public Broadcasting Series, "The Victory Garden" started its 27th season by re-focusing on the basics of growing vegetables. The Smithsonian Museum of American History, as part of its "Within These Walls..." exhibit, features a 130-foot-log Victory Garden, containing more than 50 varieties of heirloom and older varieties of plants that would have been available during WWII.

The Smithsonian Victory Garden reflects the life of Mary Scott, one of the residents of the house featured in the "Within These Walls" exhibit. By the end of 1942, the museum notes, "Mary Scott and her family were part of the war effort. Mary shopped with ration coupons, planted a victory garden, preserved vegetables in the kitchen, and waited word of her sons, Roy and Arthur, both in the armed forces."

WWII Victory Gardens, recorded by WPA artists and photographers

Except where noted, these photos and posters are from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection. (Click on any photo for a larger view.)

WPA Poster from NWU Library Collection

Doing her patriotic duty (in high heels),? buying gardening supplies.

The smallest plot of land, such as in this Virginia trailer camp, could be turned into a Victory Garden.?

Florida family no doubt finds growing cabbage in sandy soil a bit of a challenge.

Even the youngest American could contribute to the war effort, this poster from the Pennsylvania WPA War Services Project reminds.

Youngsters look over the seed packets

These ladies look a bit more serious about buying supplies than the lady in the high heels (top row).

Like Mary Scott, this lady standing by her front-door Victory Garden also has two family members in the armed forces, as evidenced by the two stars hanging in her window.

Those lucky enough to have a large or very successful Victory Garden were urged to preserve and donate surplus food.

Even in 1941, Victory Gardens were not a new concept, but the reincarnation of a program from the first World War. So what makes an ordinary garden a Victory Garden? Aside from the name, it's the commitment to the idea of growing one's own food and "putting it up." The key word here is commitment. Even in WWII, the government sternly reminded novice urban gardeners that gardens require considerable effort and care. To waste seeds and supplies would be worse than not planting a garden at all, said publications of the day. The same could be said today. If your job takes you away from your house for 12 hours a day, weekends are spent at the beach, and you like to take two weeks off in the heat of August to get out of town; if the idea of weeding, watering and picking insects off plants sounds like a form of torture, then a home garden is probably not the thing for you.

In the early years of marriage, I was a regular Betty Crocker. Half of my yard was turned over to vegetables and late August and early September was spent canning, freezing and drying produce. Then came the babies, and an even larger garden with asparagus, potatoes and pumpkins. Did I mention that deer are particularly fond of pumpkin and squash blossoms? Try explaining to a three-year-old that the several dozen baby pumpkins he counted the day before were gobbled up overnight by Bambi and his evil cousins. The next year we scaled back our garden considerably, leaving the deer to forage in the neighbor's gardens.

A successful harvest from a Victory Garden will provide for a family throughout the winter.

Every little effort counted in WWII. Note the glass lid inside the metal rim of this canning jar. Such lids were recommended because they were reusable and saved valuable metal for the war effort.

The Jeffersontown, Kentucky Community Cannery, started by the WPA. Women paid three cents each for cans and two cents per can for use of the pressure cooker to can home-grown vegetables. (Library of Congress WPA collection, Howard Hollem, photographer.)

After we moved from Maine in the early 1990s, I limited my gardening to herbs and flowers that could survive both the hot mid-Atlantic summers and my benign neglect and travel. When we moved back to Maine a year-and-a-half ago, we once again had the space for a garden. But the garden didn't happen last year. We were busy painting the house and taming the overgrown grounds. Still, I felt both jealous and guilty looking at the wonderful garden my next door neighbors planted. And I was heartened to see that the deer and woodchucks left their garden alone. So now, in mid-March, while the garden is still buried under snow and ice, I'm planning my garden for this summer.??

What should a Victory Garden contain? It's easy to get carried away in the gardening center by all the appealing packets of seeds, and the thoughts of a bountiful harvest. Before you know it, you can ring up a hundred or more dollars on seeds and supplies for plants that may never see the light of day. Depending on the size of your garden, and the space and time you have for starting seeds, healthy purchased seedlings may make more sense than starting seeds yourself. Stick to vegetables and fruits you know your family will actually eat. If turnips appear on your dinner table once a year at Thanksgiving, then don't expect your family to suddenly develop a hankering for this vegetable. Resist the temptation to plant a huge garden, especially if this is your first effort. The great thing with gardens is that there's always next year to try a different plant or to expand.? In researching this story, I can across old photos of not only Victory Gardens but Victory Flocks (of chickens). My mother, who was a young teenager living in the city during World War II, remembers neighbors keeping chickens on rooftops and even attics of tenement buildings. My neighbors will be happy to hear that I intend to limit my efforts (at least this year) to vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Cooperative extension services throughout the country offer advice on varieties of fruits and vegetables suited for different growing zones. Magazines are a source of ideas, as are seed catalogs -- which are also often free. The Old House Web has an extensive gardening section. Most public libraries have good gardening books to get you started, and then there's always thebookstore. My all-time favorite reference is the original guide to the PBS Victory Garden Series, "Crocket's Victory Garden." This beautifully illustrated book has month-by-month guidance on gardening, especially targeted at the short growing season in northern New England.??

Another WPA Poster, from the Library of Congress collection, Herbert Bayer, artist.

This WWII poster, from the United States Department of Agriculture, ran as an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post, encouraging Americans to eat healthy foods even during rationing. (Click on picture for larger view).

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