There was a time, albeit briefly, when gardening was patriotic, and a whole nation stood ready with rake and trowel to build a better tomorrow.
Britain lost many of its farmers during World War I. The consequences were both immediate and predictable. With farmers in trenches, British war gardens emerged out of a national imperative for agricultural labor, for food during war times. By World War II, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the previous war had taken such a toll on American food production that we borrowed from the British, rebranding our war gardens "victory gardens." Overnight, planting vegetables in the lawn became a matter of national pride.
In 1942 the U.S. Department of Agriculture was already providing information and education to civilians interested in helping the war effort via urban gardening. Nutrition was emphasized in crop selection, and resource conservation was taken very seriously. Consumption of locally produced foods was doubly important: It made it easier to supply the troops, and increasingly, the distribution equipment was needed for more important work than getting produce to grocers. That same year, rationing went into effect, and victory gardens became as practical as they were patriotic.
As the idea took root and the federal promotion increased, so, too, did participation and the sophistication of victory garden activities. Canning was promoted, as was conservation of precious seeds. Ag tracts suggested conversion of vacant lots, community gardening and composting. By 1943, pressure cooker sales were up five-fold over the previous year. In urban areas, vegetables were grown in window boxes, on rooftops and in public spaces like city parks. Toward the end of that year, a new slogan appeared on posters put out by the Department of Agriculture: "Grow More In '44."
At its peak, there were approximately 20 million victory gardens in the United States. In 1944 more than 40 percent of all vegetables grown in the U.S. were grown in these home gardens, but by '46 that had all changed. When the troops came home, the urban farming phenomenon abruptly ended.
Today, evidence of the victory garden movement is most notably preserved in the form of promotional posters propagandizing vegetable cultivation. A fine collection can easily be found on the Internet. The delightfully fun prints are windows into a different time; they offer an old-fashioned, radical retake on patriotism.
Adrian Vlach lives in Saranac Lake and is a Franklin County Master Gardener volunteer. He grows his victory garden in plots at the local Community Garden.