Why (and How) You Should Plant a Victory Garden This Season
Victory gardens, a great wartime solution to food insecurity, are reassuring and feeding families today. The benefits of food gardening can help families and communities in any year. Learn why victory gardens matter and how to get started on your own.
Occasionally, an idea comes along that is so beneficial it lives on from generation to generation. The victory garden is one such idea. The gardens first came to light against the backdrop of World War II, when food supply lines were strained and rationing limited what little food was available commercially. Although food security seldom is in doubt these days, planting a victory garden is still a great way to provide your family with fresh, healthy produce. The reasons for planting a victory garden might change with the times, and many find reassurance in the ability to grow their own food no matter the reason. Keep reading to learn more about victory gardens and to find out how you can benefit from planting your own.
The brainchild of former slave and agrarian scientist, George Washington Carver, who promoted the idea in a 1942 agricultural tract for the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, victory gardens caught on around the nation—and soon civilians everywhere were growing food for themselves and their communities. The gardens popped up in backyards, vacant lots, school grounds, and even in city-owned parks where residents could all participate in growing food. The gardens also were called “war gardens” because they helped reduce the pressure on the public food supply that had been created by the war. At the height of World War II, victory gardens produced as much as 41 percent of the nation’s fresh produce while building morale and creating a sense of patriotism.
As citizens pulled together to grow their own food, a number of community-sponsored victory gardens were established. San Francisco’s Victory Garden transformed the Golden Gate Park into an urban farm, and Boston’s Fenway Victory Gardens still exists today as a community garden. The idea was so popular, the nation’s First Lady at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt, planted a victory garden on the grounds of the White House and shared the food with local citizens. Seventy years later, First Lady Michelle Obama followed in her predecessor’s footsteps, establishing a community garden on the White House lawn and encouraging others to take part in growing their own food.
A Bushel of Benefits
The widespread growing of victory gardens in the early 1940s provided much-needed food for the nation during war. The gardens also brought communities together and reduced dependence on strained corporate food systems at a time when many farmworkers had been drafted into the war effort. The USDA estimates that, at the height of their popularity, there were 20 million victory gardens across the nation that produced nutritious fruits and vegetables.
Today, growing a victory garden holds more than just retro appeal; it offers homeowners and community members the chance to consume locally grown food, a trend that’s resulted in an increased number of local farmers’ markets.
Victory Gardening in the Age of COVID-19
In 2020, as the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, sweeps across the United States, resulting in food-hoarding and the stockpiling of household goods, the idea of planting a victory garden is more appealing than ever. As citizens follow directives to maintain social distancing and stay home as much as possible—venturing out only for essentials to keep the virus from spreading—the desire to grow healthy food for one’s family takes on new meaning and importance. Growing your own fresh fruits and vegetables will ensure your family has enough to eat, and you might well find you have extra food to share with neighbors or to donate to your local food bank.
Tips for Planting a Victory Garden
Backyards and side yards are perfect spots for starting a garden, but don’t let a lack of acreage keep you from growing your own food. Apartment dwellers can participate in victory gardening by establishing rooftop gardens or by growing in containers. The following steps will help ensure a bumper crop wherever your garden is located.
- Keep it light—the soil, that is. Fruits and vegetables do best in light, well-drained soil. That means adding organic matter, such as compost, dried leaves, or shredded bark to heavy soils so plant roots can thrive. If your soil content is in question, take a sample to your local County Extension Agency for testing. You’ll receive a report that recommends specific amendments to improve the soil. If you’ll be planting in containers, opt for a quality commercial potting mix, such as Miracle Grow Raised Bed Soil, that’s designed for growing fruits and vegetables in limited space.
- Choose a sunny location. Vegetable and fruit gardens produce best when the plants receive at least 8 hours of sun per day.
- Opt for family favorites. Your family’s tastes should play a role here; if no one likes green beans, don’t grow them. Traditional victory gardens included nutrition-dense foods such as beans, beets, carrots, kale, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, and spinach. If you have plenty of room, consider planting prime root crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes, all of which can be harvested in the fall and stored in a cool basement for eating during the winter.
- Select seedlings or seeds. Depending on your preferences, when you plant, and the plants you choose, you can buy seedlings to transplant in your victory garden or you can sow seeds directly in the soil. Transplanting already-growing seedlings will speed up the harvest, and seedlings are readily available from garden nurseries and many home improvement centers. If you’re looking for specialized varieties, such as Striped German Organic Tomatoes, however, you’ll probably have to order the seeds, since local nurseries typically sell a limited variety of the most popular fruits and vegetables.
- Water wisely. Vegetables and fruits need a regular supply of water, approximately 1 inch per week, but you’ll conserve this resource if you water the plants at their roots rather than using a sprinkler that wastes water by spraying it into the air; some of the water evaporates before reaching the plant. Watering slowly and deeply at the roots is efficient and reduces the risk of the plants developing fungal diseases from wet leaves.
- Control weeds. You’ll get a bountiful harvest if you make it a practice to keep weeds out of your garden because weeds compete for water, soil nutrients, and sunshine. Pulling weeds by hand as soon as they sprout usually will keep them at bay, but if you’re planning a large garden, you might want to apply a preemergent herbicide, such as Preen (available from Amazon), to the soil after your garden plants are established to keep weed seeds from sprouting.
- Prevent pests. Pest control is vital in a vegetable garden, and you can find several commercial pest control products (some organic), such as Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew (available from Amazon) for treating various types of insects that can destroy your harvest before you get a chance to eat it. Your County Extension Office can help identify the type of pest that’s bugging your plants and recommend a specific pesticide, if necessary.