Meet the rural and urban gardeners of 80 years ago.
Editor’s Note: In April, we invited you to become modern day Victory Gardeners (James Loomis, “Bring Back the Victory Garden,” https://catalystmagazine.net/bring-back-the-victory-garden/). Here we present the actual history of the national movement in World War Two from novelist and WW2 researcher Sarah Sundin.
For the average American in World War II, the Victory Garden was a practical way to contribute to the war effort. Some 20 million Victory Gardens were planted (US population in 1940 was 132 million), and by 1943, these little plots produced 40% of all vegetables consumed in the US. It is estimated that 9-10 million tons of vegetables were grown.
The need for Victory Gardens
Wartime needs stretched agricultural production. The United States not only had to feed its own civilian and military population, but many of the Allies relied on America’s bread basket. In addition, U-boats sank hundreds of food-laden ships bound for Britain. While the need expanded, the number of farm workers decreased due to the draft and—ironically—due to the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Canned fruits and vegetables were rationed starting March 1, 1943, so civilians were encouraged to grow their own produce to supplement their rations. The use of fewer canned goods would decrease the use of precious tin and reduce the strain on the heavily taxed rail and road systems.
The Victory Garden program
In December 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II, Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard began promoting Victory Gardens. The Department of Agriculture produced pamphlets to guide urban and suburban gardeners, magazines and newspapers published helpful articles, and patriotic posters urged participation.
Neighborhood and community committees were formed with veteran gardeners guiding newcomers. These committees also helped with distribution of surplus food and sharing of equipment. Many garden tools were made of steel, which was in short supply, so sharing between families was encouraged.
Who could participate?
Victory Gardens were promoted as family fun, as good healthy recreation for all ages. Farmers were encouraged to plant gardens for family needs as well as their usual cash crop. Those living in small towns or suburbs were the best candidates for Victory Gardens. Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture discouraged city-dwellers from gardening, afraid of seed being wasted on poor soil and poor lighting.
Where were gardens grown?
Victory Gardens sprang up on farms, in backyards and on city rooftops. Window boxes were converted from flowers to vegetables. Eleanor Roosevelt planted one on the White House lawn. Communal gardens were planted in parks, vacant lots and baseball fields. Sites for these gardens included San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Portland Zoo in Oregon, and Boston’s Copley Square and Fenway Victory Gardens. The Fenway site is still an active Victory Garden today.
War plants often planted gardens on their properties for use in company cafeterias, and schoolyard gardens provided fresh vegetables for school lunches.
How to garden?
The average small town- or city-dweller knew little about gardening. Pamphlets provided sample planting schedules and garden plans to show newcomers how to grow enough to feed their families for a year without wasting seed or food. These pamphlets described how to choose the garden site, prepare the soil, fertilize, plant properly, weed and harvest. The Department of Agriculture and the War Production Board prepared a special Victory Garden fertilizer for home use.
The ideal Victory Garden produced fresh vegetables in season and plenty to be preserved for winter. Women’s magazines published articles about how to can, store, dry, pickle and freeze the bounty. People were encouraged to share their surplus with others in their neighborhoods.
Victory Gardens in World War II were more than a way to increase morale. They produced a significant amount of healthy food, allowing agricultural produce to be used for the military and the Allies, and reducing the use of tin and transportation. Despite rationing, the average American ate better during the war than before. The Victory Garden was part of the reason.
Sarah Sundin is a bestselling and award-winning author of World War II novels, including The Sea Before Us, The Sky Above Us and The Land Beneath Us. A mother of three adult children, Sarah lives in California. www.sarahsundin.com.