Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

What is a Victory Garden and do I need one to survive 2020?

Yellow crocuses pushing up from a wintry brown soil.

Once upon a time, I grew this. Well, to be strictly accurate, once upon a time I inherited an established perennial garden from someone else and managed not to kill this. (Photo: Michael Howell)

Recently, I’ve come to realize that the only thing worse for my mental health than Political Twitter is Coronavirus Twitter. If Coronavirus Twitter is to be believed, it’s only a matter of time until this new disease becomes a pandemic that will decimate food supplies, topple governments, spark a global nuclear war, and utterly destroy civilization as we know it.*

*Admittedly, I am exaggerating a little here, but seriously, Coronavirus Twitter makes for pretty scary reading. Just a few tweets of it were enough to send me racing off to Amazon to order 25 pounds of rice and beans and a solar oven just in case. If you are also tracking the spread of coronavirus with the goal of assessing your family's actual risk, I recommend staying off social media and monitoring the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization's Coronavirus / COVID-19 pages instead. Their advice is less alarming, less expensive, and more useful -- get vaccinated/boosted, wash your hands frequently, wear a mask, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, stay home if you are sick, and avoid crowded indoor areas. 

To cheer myself up, I decided to take a break from Coronavirus Twitter and read a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel instead. I haven’t read that many of them, but I have read enough to notice that the just-in-time food supply rarely survives the first few chapters. That made me wonder…

What if my best strategy for surviving an apocalypse is not merely to stockpile food, but to learn how to grow it?

Black and white photo of two women in coveralls, on a farm, eating something apple-sized and round.
Two American gardeners during WWI (1918 photo, public domain via Wikipedia)

Being able to grow my own food would be a useful skill. But where does a gardening novice like me start?

Folks who know me in real life know that my preferred house plant is a cactus. I like to pretend that this is because cacti are generally non-toxic for cats, but really it’s because I can forget about them for weeks at a time and they’ll be fine. The only plants that have survived under my care so far have been the hardy types that thrive with this sort of benign neglect.

As you know, I pitch in once a week at the library at my local middle school. This week, the seventh graders have been checking out a bunch of WWII books (they’re reading Anne Frank in class and their teacher has tasked them with reading at least one more book about WWII at the same time). Seeing titles like White Bird by R.J. Palacio, MAUS by Art Spiegelman, and Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Riley Giff cross the circulation desk reminded me that the food shortages in WWII prompted lots of ordinary folks like me to start growing their own Victory Gardens.

What if, instead of driving myself crazy trying to evaluate all of the possible fruits and vegetables that grow in the temperate, if drought-prone, Northern Californian climate, I simply researched what was grown in Victory Gardens in the San Francisco area back in WWII? After all, in theory those gardens would have been full of sensible foods that thrived in our climate. You know, stuff even novices could grow with little training and less space.

When I mentioned this idea to my husband, he was sweetly enthusiastic. “Shala, that’s perfect for you. You can learn about history and learn a useful skill!”

In the face of so much enthusiasm, I felt compelled to temper his expectations. “You know I’ll probably end up killing everything.”

“That’s ok,” he said. “It will still make a good story.”

That right there is why we’re still together after all these years.

First things first: What is a Victory Garden?

Although I associate Victory Gardens with WWII, tells me that Victory Gardens were actually a product of the first World War.

According to the Evening Standard, some 70 million soldiers fought during WWI. The vast majority of these — some 60 million soldiers — came from Europe. At the beginning of the war, the standing armies of most of the 32 countries who fought in WWI were relatively small. When the war began in August 1914, Britain’s standing army included a little under 250,000 men. By the end of the war, Britain recruited nearly 1.2 million more — sweeping up nearly every eligible man between the ages of 19 and 40 in the process.

That intensive recruiting was repeated across Europe. It may have succeeded in building out the standing armies, but it resulted in a lot of empty farms. Labor shortages in agriculture were compounded by the fact that the battles themselves often took place on farmland. Unsurprisingly, this led to massive food shortages across Europe. U.S. efforts to aid its European allies began with massive shipments of food, not soldiers.

In an effort to increase the amount of commercially produced food available to send to America’s starving allies in WWI, Charles Lathrop Pack and other members of the National War Garden Commission began encouraging Americans to grow their own fruits and vegetables in their backyards, local school grounds, corporate campuses, parks, and vacant lots.

With the help of enthusiastic women’s clubs, chambers of commerce, and civic associations, the National War Garden Commission distributed countless pamphlets to their new army of gardeners, telling them how, when, and where to plant, which crops would work best in their area, and tips for dealing with common problems like insects and diseases. The war garden effort was so successfully that these early instruction manuals were followed by still more pamphlets describing how to can and dry surplus crops.

A woman wearing a sleeveless sun dress patterned after the U.S. flag (stars on the bodice, red and white stripes on the skirt) carelessly tosses seeds on a plowed field in this WWI advertising poster. The poster reads "Sow the seeds of victory! Plant and raise your own vegetables"
WWI advertisement for war gardens. That woman sowing seeds is Columbia, who was recognized as the female personification of the United States during WWI. (Public Domain image via Wikipedia)

By the end of WWI, people started calling their war gardens Victory Gardens. Many people continued growing their own food long after WWI ended. When WWII began a generation later, it was only natural for Americans to think of Victory Gardens again — especially once food rationing started in the Spring of 1942. In 1942, nearly 15 million families supplemented their rations with produce from their Victory Garden. By 1944, the number of gardens had climbed to 20 million. It’s estimated that those 20 million gardens produced nearly 40% of the fresh fruit and vegetables Americans consumed in 1944.

What kinds of things did they grow in Victory Gardens in San Francisco?

Nationwide, Victory Gardens tended to include things like beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, squash, and Swiss chard. Presumably those things would grow well in Northern California’s temperate, if dry, climate, but just to be sure, I decided to see if I could figure out what community gardeners grew in the Victory Garden at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Frustratingly, although there’s plenty of evidence that a Victory Garden existed at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, I wasn’t able to find a list I trusted of what was actually grown in it. I did find this picture from 1943 of one of the 250 victory garden plots in Golden Gate park.

A man shows off his victory garden to a woman passing by in Golden Gate Park.
1943 photo from the archives of the San Francisco Public Library’s Historic Photo Collection of a victory garden in Golden Gate Park. (Image via Golden Gate Park: Views from the Thicket)

My ability to recognize vegetables in their native environment is as poor as you might expect, but those leafy things in the front look to me like some kind of lettuce, while those triangular supports might be for tomatoes?

Clearly, I needed to keep digging.

After a bit more searching I came across an excerpt from John Brucato’s memoir, “A Sicilian in America”, in which he talks broadly about Victory Gardens in San Francisco during WWII. He is also frustratingly vague about what was actually grown, but he does mention an article that appeared in the San Francisco News advising locals to plant tomatoes, zucchini, string beans, and “other warm weather crops.”

I needed a better list, so I decided to tackle the problem another way. Instead of spending any more time looking for a list of what they grew in Golden Gate Park, I’d take the list of vegetables grown nationally in Victory Gardens (beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, squash and Swiss chard) and see which of them would grow well in Northern California. This plan led me back to the University of California Master Gardener’s website, where I found this little beauty: a layout for a 4′ by 8′ vegetable garden tailored to Northern California climate and optimized to use less water.

The garden includes herbs like basil, parsley, and chives, and vegetables like chard, lettuce, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes. All that’s left to do to implement this plan is to identify native flowers that attract pollinators but don’t require much care. Excellent.

So which of these things will grow in a container?

We’re renting, so I’m not allowed to dig up the backyard to put in a Victory Garden, no matter how fruitful. But I am allowed to grow whatever I can fit in a container.

Fortunately, my old pal the Farmer’s Almanac has published this handy list of vegetables that grow well in containers. Looks like I can grow pretty much whatever I want in a container, even stuff like tomatoes and beans that require trellises.

And that brings me to my final question…

Which of these things will my family actually eat?

Cucumbers and zucchini are a hard no. Chard is questionable. Tomatoes are ok, as long as I don’t plant too many of them (I like tomatoes, but my husband will only eat them if I turn them into salsa).

Green beans, lettuce, and all the herbs are easy yes’s. So I’ll start with those. If I manage to grow anything, I’ll post a picture of it. Because you know I won’t be able to keep a major life achievement like that under wraps.

Do you have a vegetable garden? What’s in it?

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7 Responses to “What is a Victory Garden and do I need one to survive 2020?”

    • Shala Howell

      On Saturday, I managed to plant some bee-friendly flowers, and the lettuce and chives before I ran out of potting soil. Apparently container gardening takes more soil than my math skills led me to expect. I’m planning to head out to the garden store again this week to get the soil for the green onions. I would love to grow tomatoes, but since I’m the only one in the house who eats them, have decided to continue buying them one at a time as needed. So I’m sticking with green onions, chives, lettuce, and cilantro for now because I know we’ll use them. At first I was sad to be limited to containers bc we’re renting, but now I’m glad about it, because it’s letting me take a modular approach — I can add new vegetables/flower pots over time as I gain a better understanding of how much work this is and how much time maintaining it will take. California has a delightfully long growing season.



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