victory garden, carrots

Photo: Denis and Yulia Pogostins/Shutterstock

How much do you know about the history of the victory garden? The tradition started in the First World War, when the governments of US and Britain encouraged individual residents to start their own small gardens to do their bit in the war, and it carried on through the Second World War,  right down to sneering at Hitler and building victory gardens in London's bomb craters.

The purpose of victory gardens was twofold: practical and morale-based.

For practical reasons, the government needed to relieve the strain on the food supply, in addition to facing up to the very real fact that it wasn't able to meet the dietary needs of the population. Food security was a significant problem with many farmers and their personnel away at the front, leaving limited staff available to produce food (hence the Land Girls of Britain, for example, sent as relief workers to farms). By encouraging people to grow their own fruits and vegetables, and modeling the trend with gardens in public parks and at public buildings, the government pushed residents toward food independence and security.

victory garden posterIn terms of morale, victory gardens were a way of allowing people to feel like they were participating in an all-consuming, terrifying war that often felt out of control. By growing their own food, people could strike a blow against the enemy, contributing their work to the war effort (many were also, of course, working in wartime factory jobs and other military support positions) and empowering themselves by growing their own produce.

While many people stopped gardening at home after the war, some kept right on going, even in the heart of New York's concrete jungle. Now, growing crops at home is getting popular again, reviving interest in victory gardens, even if we don't necessary call them that. In a way, though, that's exactly what they are, although they represent victory of a different nature. Today, gardeners are fighting industrial agriculture and growing practices they deem unsustainable by producing crops at home for local, sustainable, organic produce grown in methods they can control.

In fact, a handful of public victory gardens from the war era remain, and the long-running PBS series The Victory Garden is still going strong. All the more reason to start one of your own, if you haven't already, and as in the wartime era, you can embrace the space you have available with intensive gardening to produce a surprisingly large amount of produce.

Why join the movement? Well, for one thing, producing your own crops is satisfying in a way many people don't expect until they actually do it. Being able to walk out the door (or lean out the window) and pick your own lettuce sounds gratifying, but the act of doing so carries new weight. That produce also has a taste that feels fresher and better; sensitive crops like lettuce, for example, can burst with new flavor when they're fresh.

Growing a victory garden also allows you to work with cultivars that don't thrive under industrial or even small farm planting, for a variety of reasons. They may be sensitive, finicky, too hard to harvest, or too unreliable, but they could work just fine in your garden. That means you could have a chance to eat unusually flavored, textured, and colored cultivars that might just expand your culinary world.

You'll save money, naturally, although the startup costs can be high if you're buying containers, soil, fencing and other materials. You may want to work with local services that provide help to people just starting out with gardening, and don't be afraid to get creative when it comes to planters and supplies.

Finally, you'll also have a great family and learning experience. Gardening connects people with the source of their food and helps them value food supplies more fully, making it a great experience for children (and adults). You'll be passing on new values about food, nature and society to the next generation, which can be a great feeling.

Katie Marks originally wrote this story for It is reprinted with permission here.

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Poster: U.S. Government Printing Office/Wikimedia Commons
Dig into history with a victory garden
Though the 'enemy' is different today, the results are the same: Independence, thrift, accomplishment.