Lessons from a Wartime Victory Garden
By: Jessie Keith
Victory Gardens inspired millions of Americans that had never gardened to grow food to feed their families. Everyday people learned to garden on a homesteading scale. And my family was no exception. My maternal grandparent’s Victory Garden taught them to fend for themselves and eat well when wartime rations were most limited.
Wartime Gardens appeared across rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods. Schools, garden clubs, and other private and civic groups all supported home and community gardens efforts. Model ordinances for Victory Gardens in cities and municipalities were created, and police were tasked with making sure that community gardens were managed correctly and protected from theft. It was the job of commercial farmers who kept the troops fed at all costs. The bulk of the meat, vegetables, grains, and even cotton went to the soldiers first.
A Call to Garden!
First popularized towards the end of World War One (WWI) and carried through World War Two (WWII), Victory Gardening made up for food shortages caused by the need to feed thousands of soldiers abroad. They were most embraced in the United States, Britain, and Australia–countries less (or not) ravaged by the ground war. And their legacy inspired generations of non-farmers to grow food on a scale never seen before–setting the stage for many future gardeners. Even the Roosevelts grew a Victory Garden on the Whitehouse grounds in 1943.
The US Department of Agriculture, The Office of War Information, The National Victory Garden Institute, and other federal, state, and private entities forwarded the national gardening effort. American propaganda posters for Victory Gardening said it all. Slogans like, “Sow the Seeds of Victory,” “Dig on for Victory,” and “The Seeds of Victory Insure the Fruits of Peace,” inspired a call to garden. Growing food became an American duty, and families could write to the National War Garden Commission for free books about growing and storing produce. Canning became commonplace, which helped stretch the dime and feed Americans during the winter months.
My Grandparent’s Victory Garden
In 1942, my grandfather, Dr. Archie MacAlpin (1907-1996), was living in Canyon, Texas, searching for oil for the government while working on starting the geology program at West Texas A&M University, Canyon, TX. He and my Grandmother, Marian Love-MacAlpin (1910-1991), also helped the war effort by growing a big Victory Garden at their rural home.
The property had been an old chicken farm, and like the heroine in Betty MacDonald’s The Egg And I (a hysterical book about an urban woman thrown into country life on a chicken farm during The Great Depression), my pampered grandmother learned how to earn her keep; something she did with surprising ease considering her background.
She grew up as the only child of a respected University of Michigan mathematics professor and author of Bridge Books, Clyde E. Love. Her upbringing was one of privilege and etiquette. She did not even wash her own hair until she was married at 18; instead, she was taken to the beauty parlor several times a week. Still, she learned to love nature at their lakeside summer cottage in northern Michigan, and she adored wildflowers and flower gardens. These experiences must have inspired her to embrace her Victory Garden with zeal.
Their Texas garden was birthed on a fertile site where chicken droppings had been dumped for years, so it yielded monster crops. It saved them money when other gardeners needed to rely on compost and other amendments to increase soil fertility. The land was otherwise arid and infertile, and they only had one well for water. Local extension agents taught them to garden and raise their own chickens.
Plans and instructions for gardens were provided through government pamphlets, popular magazines (such as Better Homes & Gardens), and seed companies. (Needless to say, established seed companies such as Ferry-Morse, Burpee, Parks, Gurney’s, and others thrived during this time.) And, the garden plans they used were designed to feed families all year long, even through the winter.
Their plot was big enough to feed their family of four. They grew tomatoes, squash (winter and summer), beans, peas, carrots, okra, and cucumbers for pickles. A small chicken house supplied them with eggs and meat, so they ate well despite the wartime rations. The long southern growing season let them grow for longer, and from all accounts, their bountiful garden was a productive success.
One of their biggest tasks was not raising the food but preparing and storing it. Grandma learned how to can and pickle produce (click here to learn more about canning). They had an old-fashioned icebox, so freezing was not an option. Grandma killed, feathered, gutted, and canned chicken herself. She canned hundreds of quarts of vegetables each season, and produced the best pickles ever, according to my mother. Once again, the local extension agent taught her how to can properly, which illustrates the importance of local extension agents then and now (click here to find your local extension agent).
By 1946, the war was over, and my grandparents moved to South Bend, Indiana, but they never forgot their great West Texas Victory Garden. And, in times of need, they continued to turn to gardening for needed vegetables.
Lessons from Wartime Victory Gardens
Victory gardens made food gardening commonplace, so if you grew up with a non-agrarian family that gardened, they might have started during one of the great wars. Anyone can learn to grow their own food, in yards large or small. Tending to your soil and fortifying it with lots of powerful organics will help ensure bountiful produce (click here to view all of our essential garden amendments). If our grandparents could do it, so can we. Fresh, organic food is a luxury, and it is a pleasure to grow. Growing your own fruit and vegetables can be less expensive and will continue the legacy of growing healthful food to feed the family.
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