The History of Victory Gardens
Thanks to the efforts of community gardeners, locavores, and the First Lady, the victory garden has made a comeback in recent years. And it’s not just the province of hippies and hipsters — many neighborhoods in the inner cities of the United States have fully embraced the community garden model as a way to reduce crime and delinquency, bring up property values, and offset grocery costs. What many people don’t quite realize is that this current upsurge in garden enthusiasm has a precedent: the mass victory garden movement that began in World War I and really took off with World War II.
In 1917, a group of American politicians, intellectuals, conservationists, and social welfare activists formed the National War Garden Commission as a reaction to World War I’s detrimental effect on the food supply. Thanks to the collapse of intra-European trade relations, nations that had previously imported food from their current enemies faced severe shortages. In addition, what resources they did have were being funneled into soldiers’ rations. Thus, the Commission began massive educational (and some would say, propogandic) campaigns so that the United States could both feed itself and the nations of Europe.
Even the founders of the Commission couldn’t predict the incredible success of their movement. By 1918, Americans maintained an estimated 5.2 million “war gardens” and many civilians participated in daily gardening, drying, and canning lessons to further stretch the food supply. Soon, foreign nations such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Japan, and South Africa requested the Commission’s assistance with starting similar programs.
Thus, Americans were primed and ready to renew their gardening efforts once World War II rolled around. This time, the military draft and the internment of Japanese Americans had cut the country’s formerly robust levels of agricultural production into ribbons. The Roosevelt administration spearheaded the revival of the war garden movement to prevent a disastrous food shortage at home.
The administration rebranded war gardens as “victory gardens,” and participation surged. At the peak of production, there were more than 20 million such gardens in the United States. Citizens commandeered numerous abandoned lots, schoolyards, lawns, and rooftops for the war effort, and many viewed gardening with the same respect and fervor as they viewed military service.
Even the White House got in on the action: in 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt established a victory garden on the White House grounds as a public demonstration (sound familiar?). Americans grew an estimated 1 million tons of fruits and vegetables during this period. After the war, gardening efforts tapered off as more American families began to favor buying food from supermarkets and cultivating low-maintenance lawns at home.
However, victory gardening has come back in vogue, thanks to the work of Michael Pollan, Will Allen, Novella Carpenter, and many others. Urban agriculturalists have already made huge gains in Detroit, Pomona, and Los Angeles. In Havana, Cuba and Mumbai, India, population and resource stresses have encouraged dramatic increases in urban farming.
The work of the 1917 War Garden Commission continues to live on.
BIO: Soleil Ho is a nature enthusiast and professional writer who contributes to many blogs, including the official blog of Grandview Landscape & Masonry.