By Tejal Rao, March 25, 2020
During World War II, some 20 million victory gardens were planted in the United States.Credit...Bettman/Getty Images
Americans were once urged to plant in every patch of available soil — and produced about 40 percent of the nation’s fresh vegetables.
“Small things count,” read a headline in the tiny, insistent pamphletpublished by the National War Garden Commission in 1919. The pitch made gardening a civic duty. And though the illustrations were cute, the text was urgent: “Prevention of widespread starvation is the peacetime obligation of the United States. … The War Garden of 1918 must become the Victory Garden of 1919.” The victory garden movement began during World War I and called on Americans to grow food in whatever spaces they could — rooftops, fire escapes, empty lots, backyards. It maintained that there was nothing more valuable than self-sufficiency, than working a little land, no matter how small, and harvesting your own eggplant and tomatoes.
When victory gardens came back to prominence during World War II, newspapers and magazines gleefully documented national gardening initiatives, with Life Magazine publishing full-page images of “pretty girls in becoming shorts” digging the ground in 1943. It looked like a stunt, but so many people took the movement to heart that, at one point, it’s estimated that home, school and community gardeners produced close to 40 percent of the country’s fresh vegetables, from about 20 million gardens.
As the war ended, and lawns took over American backyards, those earnest posters of cheery home gardeners and fierce-looking vegetables became a relic of wartime scarcity — until a few weeks ago.
With panicked shoppers cleaning out stores, and basic foods like dried beans and potatoes becoming increasingly difficult to track down, even those with no gardening experience are searching for do-it-yourself YouTube videos on how to build a raised bed. On the first day of spring, home gardeners planted seeds and saplings. Savvy nurseries rushed to get their inventories online so shoppers could pay in advance and make contactless, curbside pickups. Bags of potting soil sold out. Corn, sorghum, squash, kale and cabbage seeds moved fast. “Like every seed company, we’ve had a huge uptick in sales,” said Nate Kleinman, who lives and farms in southern New Jersey (where nurseries and farming supply stores have been classed as essential businesses). “People seem to be preparing for some serious disruptions in the food supply. I’m not alone in feeling concerned with how this may go down,” he said. Sign up to receive our daily Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide with the latest developments and expert advice. Mr. Kleinman co-founded the Experimental Farm Network in 2013, a nonprofit in Philadelphia, that connects amateur farmers, gardeners, plant breeders and researchers, and also sells organic seeds. When Mr. Kleinman put up a call on his social media for planting “Corona Victory Gardens,” alongside an image of Superman, Batman and Robin gardening on the cover of a 1943 issue of “World’s Finest Comics,” he heard back almost immediately from 1,000 eager gardeners. The majority of them were amateurs, looking for seeds, lumber to build raised beds and basic information about soil and how to grow food, he said. “The war-garden model was inspiring for a lot of people, because there were all these huge forces at work around the globe that were out of their control,” Mr. Kleinman said. But he added that the term “victory garden” makes some modern farmers cringe because of its military connotations, and its use during the internment of Japanese-Americans, many of whom were farmers themselves.
The group didn’t want to build a new movement around the old term, and decided to call themselves the “Cooperative Gardens Commission.” The victory garden program may be more than a century old, but “the parallels right now are pretty stark,” said Rose Hayden-Smith, the author of “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I.” The first such push started in the context of another pandemic, the influenza outbreak of 1918. “You have to remember, we lost more Americans to the flu than we did to the battlefield,” she said. Gardens flourished on the home front because people were eager to build their own community-based food security, and to cultivate something beautiful and useful in times of great stress and uncertainty, Ms. Hayden-Smith said. But ask any farmer — gardening is hard work, growth is slow and yields can be unpredictable. In 1943, The Times ran a story on the disappointments and failures of the millions of first-time gardeners who had thrown themselves into planting gardens without much experience, and were now hesitant to invest in insecticides or soil tests. “The First Year Is the Hardest,” the headline assured readers, but it wasn’t assuring enough. A year later, The Times reported that “no amount of warning will make people plant their Victory gardens again this year unless they are convinced that they are really needed.” The craze slowed down. Millions of gardens were abandoned.
On Wednesday, there were about six inches of snow on the ground outside Albany, where Leah Penniman works as the farm manager of Soul Fire Farm, but next week, she and her team will build a vegetable garden for a refugee family in nearby Troy, N.Y. Ms. Penniman, the author of “Farming While Black,” stressed that provision gardening wasn’t new, not even a century ago when the federal government partnered with private organizations and grass-roots efforts to promote gardens in pamphlets, posters and short films. “What we stand for now is what our elders and ancestors have always stood for,” Ms. Penniman said. “To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves.” Soul Fire Farm builds about 10 large gardens a year for households, schools, churches and communities in need of fresh food, providing the labor, lumber, soil and coaching to complete each project. After sending out an email on Monday to remind people of the program during the pandemic, Ms. Penniman said she had already received 50 requests — the demand for five years’ worth of gardens in a single day. “In some ways we’ve been preparing for this all our lives as organizers and as small-scale farmers,” she said. “As we see the systems we’ve come to rely on show their cracks, we are called to rise to the moment.”