The world was at war. Labor and transportation shortages made it difficult to harvest and move fruits and vegetables to market. Trains and trucks were busy transporting soldiers, vehicles and weapons, so most Americans ate local produce grown in their own vegetable patch or in their community. This was one important way people helped support the war effort, canning the excess to be used through the winter and early spring months until the next year’s harvest was ripe. This enabled more supplies to be shipped to our troops world wide. Thus the term ‘Victory Garden’ was born.
Government agencies, private foundations, businesses, schools, and seed companies all worked together to provide land, instruction, and seeds for individuals and communities to promote this call for self-sufficiency. From California to Florida, rural and urban Americans alike, plowed backyards, vacant lots, parks, baseball fields, and schoolyards to set out gardens of every shape and size. Some people even used their window boxes or grew gardens on the rooftops of their apartments. Children and grownups weeded, planted, fertilized and watered in order to harvest an abundance of vegetables for their families, friends, and neighbors.
Colorful posters and regular feature articles in newspapers and magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post helped to spread the word and supported the efforts of people to hang in there. Women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal helped by furnishing instructions on how to prepare the soil, plant and grow vegetables. Encouraged to preserve their own vegetables by the slogan“Eat what you can, and can what you can’t”, in 1943 families purchased 315,000 pressure cookers (used for canning) compared to 66,000 in 1942. The U.S. government and commercial publishers printed recipe books that described how to make tasty and nutritious meals from what was grown.
Were victory gardens a success? The US Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million victory gardens were planted. Fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots was estimated to be 9-10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables at that time. So, the program had a huge impact.
My dad is a great historian, and has a whole library on World WarII. He was ten years old in 1942 and has a vivid memory of events that took place during the war. He reminded me that on Christmas day 1941 Long Beach and Santa Barbara were fired upon by Japanese submarines. In early 1942 the sense of very real and immediate danger prompted our government to begin the internment of 120,000 Japanese people, many of whom were farmers in California. The Japanese farmers at that time were responsible for a $40,000,000 a year industry growing fruits and vegetables. Their imprisonment left a huge shortage of labor in the California market, making food shortages a looming reality.
How difficult it is for us to comprehend today the immediateness of that war, the threat felt by Americans at that time. These concepts are foreign to us, in our post-war, global economy. We have been so bombarded with marketing messages of consumerism, and reliance on others, that today we have a whole generation of young people who know it no other way. As our citizenship ages, we are losing the experiences and knowledge of WWII from our society’s soul. I loved hearing my dad share about the neighbor that lived behind his family and allowed my grandparents to work his property that adjoined theirs, and plant a huge garden that included corn and potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, beans of many varieties, carrots and beets, and all sorts of berries. He simply requested that they share a bit of their harvest with him. Dad recalled the gentleman coming over and getting to pick from whatever he wanted, and my grandparents gratefully shared any of the produce with him. This illustrates one of the most important points dad related: how the Victory Gardens boosted morale and brought people and communities together.
Victory Gardens allowed the average person to be part of the war effort. By planting these gardens they helped prevent food shortages. Victory Gardens were a tangible expression of their patriotism. In addition to purchasing war bonds, conserving raw materials and recycling, people rallied behind the troops, they helped their neighbors, they gave their lives, and they sowed some seeds of victory through gardening.