Victory gardens – then and now


By Kim Marshall - Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District



How many of you remember the news media images from March and April of this year depicting empty shelves in grocery stores? Because of the COVID-19 situation, many folks planted vegetable gardens for the first time, and these gardens have been dubbed “Corona Victory Gardens.” But the use of the term, victory garden, has deeper “roots” in history.

The National War Garden Commission (NWGC) encouraged the public to grow and preserve food as part of the World War I effort, through the use of posters and advertisements. Schools and their students were “enlisted” in the movement, too. The federal government continued to encourage citizens to grow and preserve their own food after the war since the U.S. was still providing substantial food aid to war-torn Europe and its citizens. The NWGC indicated in their publication, War Gardening and Home Storage of Vegetables, that U.S. citizens grew $520 million in food crops in gardens, vacant lots and backyards in 1918. In today’s dollars, this equates to approximately $8.8 billion!

The strategy continued during World War II, as the administration was concerned with citizens having enough to eat due to the rationing of foodstuffs. One way to educate the public was through the use of posters and how-to booklets. Approximately four million jars, cans, and containers of tomatoes and other vegetables were preserved by U.S. citizens during World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

To some people, planting a garden sounds like a daunting task. But remember that the majority of citizens that gardened during the great wars were first-time gardeners, too. The autumn season in Ohio brings great opportunity to start your own victory garden, no matter how small a plot of land. Edible landscaping and container gardening are two such methods that a beginner vegetable gardener can employ without much land, money or expertise!

Edible landscaping, also known as “foodscaping,” consists of methods to add edible vegetables, plants, and herbs to the existing landscaping in your yard. Container gardening consists of using planters or pots to grow your edibles. A sunny or partially sunny spot is needed with either method. While the remainder of our growing season precludes the planting of crops like sweet corn, potatoes or melons, many vegetables, known as cold crops, prefer the cooler temperatures coming in the fall. And these vegetables and herbs come in a variety of heights, sizes, and colors to complement existing landscaping or a deck/patio area.

One of my favorites is Swiss chard. I pick a seed variety with multiple-colored stems of burgundy, red and yellow that are harvested from the outside to let smaller leaves develop for future harvest. Beets, with their vibrant red stems, are harvested for the root, and the cut tops are cooked for greens. All kinds of greens (such as lettuce, spinach and kale) abound with various green hues and textures. While needing a trellis, sugar snap peas are a tasty treat raw or steamed. Do you have dill and/or coriander (cilantro) seed in your pantry? Just rough up an area in your landscaped beds or plant the seeds in a container. They are easily germinated. All of the plants/herbs mentioned so far are grown from seed, which is less expensive than buying plants.

For those who prefer buying plants for a fall garden, cabbage is a must. Planted cabbages can create a short hedge in a landscape bed, come in green and purple colors, and can be eaten raw, cooked or fermented (sauerkraut or kimchi). Broccoli plants and onion bulbs are easy to grow, too. Herbs such as oregano and chive are perennial (meaning they’ll survive the Ohio winter to return in the spring) and are good choices for containers. Bring the containers in when freezing temperatures arrive and continue to harvest these herbs all winter. And a handy tip on containers – use packing peanuts in the bottom of the pot to add drainage, lighten pot weight and reduce potting soil amounts (to save money). Perhaps your yard needs a few more trees. Think about planting a fruit tree, such as apple, pear, or cherry, instead of an ornamental tree. Most garden centers offer steep discounts on fruit trees in the fall to reduce their inventory.

The adage, “the more things change, the more they remain the same” applies to victory gardens – both then and now.

For more encouragement, explore additional historic images and learn more facts about victory gardens and home preservation methods of yesteryear by visiting the virtual exhibit, Canning Through the War Years, at www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/canning/exhibits/show/wartime-canning/world-war-ii.

Another thoughtful virtual exhibit to visit is Gardening for the Common Good, at library.si.edu/exhibition/cultivating-americas-gardens/gardening-for-the-common-good.

For current practices in vegetable gardening, search the terms “foodscaping” or “vegetable container gardening” on the Internet as you begin your journey to sustainability and self-reliance.

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By Kim Marshall

Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District

Kim Marshall is the communication specialist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.

Kim Marshall is the communication specialist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.