Cultivating for the Cause: Victory Gardens Till New Ground
"If It Grows a Fine Crop of Flowers
or Weeds, It's Soil."
America had a well deserved reputation as a land of plenty, but World War II challenged the nation's ability to grow and distribute enough food. Millions of farmers and farm laborers had streamed into the military or to high paying defense industry jobs, leading to a severe farm labor shortage. At the same time, the United States bore the additional responsibility of providing vast amounts of food to allies such as Britain, China, and the Soviet Union, hoping to prevent their collapse. To boost production and ease the strain on the transportation system, Victory Gardens sprouted across the country, as many Americans learned the pleasure of getting dirty for a patriotic cause.
Why Victory Gardens?
Officials cited several reasons why Americans should grow their own food. Even with boosts in farm production goals, citizens were told that the needs were "so great that every food production resource must be mobilized to meet the demand." About 25 percent of total food production in 1943 went to the armed forces and to the allies, with each soldier needing a ton of food a year. Moreover, partly because of tin shortages and the military needs, canned food was in short supply and came under rationing regulations. This left millions of Americans habituated to eating canned foods looking at increasingly bare grocery store shelves. Fresh fruits and vegetables were not rationed but, according to officials, "the wartime burden on the Nation's transportation system will make it impossible to ship over long distances the normal amount of fresh vegetables and fruits, especially the more bulky vegetables. This will require production of more of the civilian supplies close to consuming areas."(1)
Do You Have a Green Thumb?Among the many efforts to promote gardening, the National Victory Garden Institute sponsored a Green Thumb Contest in 1944. The national grand prize winner in the adult category could take home a war bond worth 1,000 dollars, while a lucky grade school and high school winner would each get a 500 dollar bond. State and local prizes were also handed out.
Contestants filled out charts recording their planting and harvesting information such as what was planted, the crop yield, and how it was used after harvesting. Additionally, contestants could write "short stories" about their gardens and send in pictures. Judges on the local, state, and national levels took into account neatness and originality, planting arrangement, choice of crops and varieties, crop yields, and how the crop was used to determine winners. Perhaps mostly for the bleary-eyed judges, children were advised that "since it is important to keep this Record Book clean and neat, it is suggested that you do not take it into the garden...."(view PDF-6 pages)(9)
Authorities also provided citizens with selfish reasons to have a Victory Garden. Home gardeners wouldn't have to worry about crop failures in other parts of the country or about transportation "bottlenecks" limiting supply. They would save money too since "even a small garden, if well planned and tended, will yield $25 to $50 worth of vegetables." People with Victory Gardens would be healthier since "there's nothing like exercise and better meals to improve your health, which is doubly important in wartime." And, officials asserted, home grown food is tastier: "It's not only because you raised it yourself, with sweat and care. Vegetables and fruits do have a better flavor when they are really fresh, as they are when they come right from the garden." And for those suffering from wartime anxiety, "there isn't a better hobby for lots of people. It makes you feel good. It relaxes your nerves. It's a family enterprise that brings together father, mother, son and daughter." Even the community benefits of gardening could make the individual feel better since gardens "promote neighborliness, sociability, cooperation." And, with home gardeners providing 40 percent of the country's fresh vegetables by 1944, the individual could rightly feel patriotic about the contribution.(2)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture promoted Victory Gardens in four major settings. Of course, farms were obvious candidates. Farmers were encouraged to start or expand vegetable gardens and, where possible, to plant strawberries, bush fruit, and suitable fruit trees. By 1944 Americans tended over six million farm gardens.Town and suburban gardeners were called on to plant in their back yards or any other "open sunny garden space." Suburban property owners, with typically larger lots, were asked to plant more fruit "wherever space permits." While some people living in cities, such as Portland, could plant in back yards or street right of ways, many relied on community gardens. These could be set up on vacant lots that were recommended to be 30 by 50 feet or larger and "accessible by bus or street car." Officials also called on schools to grow gardens, hoping to supply school lunches in the process. During the long summer vacation, schools could hire local boys to cultivate the gardens "under the watchful supervision of the instructor or a gardener."(3) Overall, American's responded by tending over 20 million Victory Gardens during the war.
Once they were sure they wanted to garden, citizens had access to a wealth of information about how to proceed. The literature ranged from very basic to very detailed since it was designed to help everyone from the first time gardener to the long time gardener looking to increase yields or try new crops. Most of the advice told gardeners to choose the plot wisely but chemical soil analysis wasn't needed because "if it grows a fine crop of flowers or weeds, it's soil." Still, they were to be wary of "the usual kind of city lots where soil is mostly cinders and rubbish." Gardeners were admonished to avoid using too much seed and planting too much of one thing. Too much shade could also doom a location. Thus, planning ahead was important so rookie gardeners were told not to let tall crops shade short ones: "Plant climbers, like beans, to the north; short ones, to the south." Of course, to be vigilant against weeds and insects they had to "be ready with spray gun and duster and the proper death-dealing ammunition."(5)(6) Local experiences
While Victory Gardens grew around the state, they perhaps had their biggest impact in the urban setting of the Portland area. Thousands of new gardeners took to the plots. By May 1943, just the children alone were cultivating an amazing 135 acres of land, with more than 2,000 young people participating in the Victory Garden program. All of the schools took part by instructing fifth grade through high school students during class time. The actual gardening would be done outside of school hours with each student being registered for an individual garden area. "Important-looking" V-garden signs that included no trespassing warnings were also given to each student. Concerned with rising juvenile delinquency, school authorities thought it was "better for children to have gardens than to be entirely unoccupied when school is over." And at least one teacher, Miss Maude Mattley, thought that the children made good gardeners: "...it is safe to say that most of these young gardeners were far better prepared to start out with a hoe and a rake than the average adult victory gardener."(7)
Meanwhile, adults streamed into Portland area classes to become better gardeners. The local victory garden committee offered the free classes throughout the city. By May 1943, 12 classes were underway with more planned. While some children attended, most of the students ranged from 20 years old to over 70. Taught by experienced volunteers, the weekly classes took place in schools, private homes, or "wherever the requisite space is available." Lessons highlighted each class but question and answer sessions were a popular component. According to one teacher: "We try to keep the subject matter seasonal and very practical. What to do this week, what things to plant, how to care for the things already set out...just whatever is timely." While many of the classes were held in the evening, some daytime classes were offered for the large number of defense industry workers on "swing shift," often from 4 p.m. to midnight. The classes were becoming popular in the defense housing areas and organizers wanted to "start a class for gardeners in Vanport City and Kaiserville, and have more than 200 names signed up for membership."(8)
1. "Book IV The Victory Garden Campaign," U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1943. Pages 1-2, Folder 13, Box 30, Defense Council Records, OSA.
2. "The Facts About 1945 Victory Gardens," U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1945. Folder 13, Box 30, Defense Council Records, OSA.
3. "Book IV The Victory Garden Campaign," U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1943. Pages 2-3, Folder 13, Box 30, Defense Council Records, OSA.
4. "How Will Your Garden Grow?" Oregon Department of Education Newsletter, February 1943. Page 2, Folder 28, Box 29, Oregon State Library Records, OSA.
5. "Victory Garden Leader's Handbook," U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1943. Pages 14-15, Folder 13, Box 30, Defense Council Records, OSA.
6. "What the Extension Service of Oregon State College Is Doing on the Victory Garden Program," Oregon State College, June 17, 1943. Folder 13, Box 30, Defense Council Records, OSA.
7. "2000 Children Raise Vegetables As 4-H Club Enterprise," The Oregonian, May 30, 1943, Farm Section, Page 2.
8. "'Swing Shift' Gardening Classes Prove latest Development In Producing More Vegetables in Portland and Oregon Country," The Oregonian, May 9, 1943, Farm Section, Page 1.
9. "Green Thumb Contest Record Book," National Victory Garden Institute, Inc., 1944. Folder 13, Box 30, Defense Council Records, OSA.