Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Victory Gardens

Permaculture creator David Holmgren once calculated that if we could turn every square metre of space in our yards and vacant lots into food crops – he was looking at cities in his native Australia, but US or European cities would not be very different – their populations could feed themselves. It sounds like an unreachable fantasy for us today, but something very like that happened in the USA and Britain 70 years ago.

As the U.S. entered World War II, much of the food industry focused on the war effort. Farmhands were needed at the front, machinery for planes, and people needed to do more for themselves, and what crops were grown were needed for troops. A grass-roots movement spread across both countries to create “victory gardens,” and the idea was picked up by celebrities, politicians and the mainstream media.

“The gardens ranged from farms of several hundred acres managed by war plants and growing food for employee cafeterias down to eight by 10 foot backyards in Brooklyn, where natives found to their delight that more than a tree would grow,” according to historian Richard Lingeman in his book Don’t You Know There’s a War On? 

“(One observer reported that “every backyard and vacant lot with a fence” had a victory garden.) The Department of Agriculture tried to discourage the city farmers to some extent, but such was the enthusiasm of the of the urban dwellers and the novelty of growing one’s own vegetables that the small plots abounded in every city backyard and vacant lot. Many cities had communal plots in parks and other vacant land. Total production was in excess of 1,000,000 tons of vegetables valued at $85,000,000.”

“Victory gardening combined recreation and patriotism; whole families would journey forth on Saturdays to work in their gardens. Mothers revived nearly lost arts of canning that their grandmothers had practiced by putting up part of the family crop at harvest-time. Community pressure cookers were employed in many states. Children became acquainted with exotic new vegetables such as chard and kohlrabi, introduced because of the seed shortage. “

“Garden clubs fought to prevent the replanting of flower gardens into victory gardens, citing their morale value or, in the case of shade trees (which there was early patriotic talk of cutting down for their wood) their use as camouflage. House & Garden assigned the American gardener a dual role in the war effort; first, to plant a victory garden, but also “to keep the flower garden going – grow annuals for immediate cheerful effects and maintain perennials and flowering shrubs and trees so that their beauty will be a relief to wartime tenseness.”

In Great Britain, 60 per cent of food was imported when World War II began, and most of that food now had to be grown locally. Before the war, British farmers had gotten most of their seeds from abroad – then, suddenly, farmers had to save their own.

On radio programmes, magazines and movie newsreels, housewives were encouraged to preserve food in energy-saving, old-fashioned ways, like clamping potatoes under mounds of hay to keep them for the winter. Many used economical ways to cook food, like putting boiling soups in hay-stuffed boxes to slow-cook.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the victory gardens worked. They allowed most people to grow their own food, and spend less money. They put to work the precious space that is now being used simply as lawns or landscaping features. In a time when energy was scarce, they allowed more trucking and food to be used for the war effort.

Victory gardens meant that citizens ate better food – instead of a 10,000 kilometre diet, a 10-metre one. A now-forgotten 1977 Congressional panel observed that heart attacks and strokes went down in the war years, even with the stresses of war and a demographic shift toward the elderly – because of more fresh vegetables in their diet.

They ensured that millions of people became self-sufficient, and were insulated from the chaos of energy shortages and supply chain disorder; in the event of a crisis, every gardener makes your neighbourhood more secure. The gardens meant that people spent less money – the less money you need to spend on food, the more you can put away for paying the mortgage or eliminating the credit card debt. They created more beautiful neighbourhoods, gave people exercise, and brought communities together.

Today, a new victory garden movement would do all these things and help us with new challenges like peak oil and climate change. Every boxful of vegetables you grow is one fewer that does not have to be shipped in from the other side of the planet. Also, building good soil is not just carbon-neutral, it’s carbon-negative, taking carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it back where it belongs.

In fact, while Ireland never entered into World War II, the same thing was done here – council estates gave families as much land as a cow needed, and it was once common, I’m told, to see cows and chickens in many yards in Dublin. Most schools and hospitals here used to have their own gardens, and at the schools around here, they are rapidly returning.

1 comment:

Suzanne, Kiva Fellow, Graduate Student, and Mom said...

You would be interested to learn that Maplewood School District is incorporating the raising of chickens in its curriculum from elementary thru high school. It is now commonplace to find titles of magazines in grocery stores for things such as hobby farms, canning and the like. I've noticed in the past year more neighbors are growing small gardens in their suburban size yard plots. It's all very exciting! :)