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Victory Gardens

By Sue William

Victory gardens were vegetable gardens planted during the world wars to ensure an adequate supply of food for people at home and those fighting in the war. The goal was to produce enough fresh vegetables through the summer for the immediate family and neighbors. Government agencies, 4-H groups, private foundations, businesses, schools, and seed companies all worked together to provide instruction, and seeds for people and communities to grow food.

Americans plowed backyards, vacant lots, parks, and baseball fields to grow gardens to offset expected wartime food shortages during World War II. Almost everyone was doing it--even big city apartment dwellers were urged to plant vegetables in window boxes. Children worked with adults to raise an abundance of vegetables. Saving money for the home front war effort and a sense of patriotic duty were the primary motivations for many families. It became almost unpatriotic for people living in the Midwest not to have a victory plot beside the family home. 

The requirements of the Nebraska Victory Home and Garden Program were to pledge “to put forth our best efforts; to plan, grow, and store enough garden products for home use; to eat the right foods--meat, milk, eggs, cereals, vegetables, fruits; home produced, if possible; to eliminate waste of foods and materials; to keep our home and its surroundings attractive, to work and play together, and to keep our chins up--for our family, our neighbors, and America.”

Victory garden information could be obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Booklets on how to grow Victory garden were printed by the government and distributed free; some were sold for 10 cents by companies like International Harvester and the Beechnut Packing Company. Many books on wartime gardening were available from commercial publishers with titles like Gardening for Victory, Food Gardens for Defense, Grow Your Own Food to Feed Your Family, or 25 Vegetables Anyone Can Grow. 

Special sprays were created to scare off rabbits without harming them and scarecrows were put up to chase away blackbirds and aggressive jay birds. Some of the Victory garden scarecrows were fashioned to resemble Hitler, Mussolini, or Hirohito.

Colorful posters and articles in magazines and newspapers encouraged patriotic Americans to plant that Victory garden. Movie magazines featured stars like Joan Crawford hard at work in her Victory garden, inspiring others to do the same in their backyards. Special guests invited to Joan Crawford’s home were served what she called her “Mildred Pierce Victory Salad” with all ingredients grown in her own garden.

Any excess produce was canned and preserved for the winter and early spring until next year’s victory garden produce was ripe. In the fall women would use the deep cooker-canning pot designed to hold a number of glass Mason jars; some women used pressure cookers to speed up the process and conserve fuel. The jars, filled with cooked produce, had to have sterile rubber rings and either metal or glass tops which were tightly sealed. Fruit jams and jellies were topped with hot wax, sealing them for storage. The food was then enjoyed during the winter and spring until the next crop was ready. 

Gallup published a two-part survey in January 1943 saying that 54 percent of those responding intended to plant a victory garden in the spring, while 44 percent had no plans to be a wartime gardener. Overall, the figures represented a 6 percent increase over the number of people who had grown gardens in 1942.

During peak war years there were an estimated twenty million Victory gardens growing in the United States, producing over 8,000,000 tons of food . This was enough food produced to make a difference in the national food supplies. Their efforts growing and preserving their own food saved the nation’s war products for the armed forces and Allies. 

Victory Garden festivals were common during the fall to praise and encourage patriotic contributions of home gardeners. Agriculture secretary Claude Wickard spoke before a large rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field during September 1943 to endorse Washington's support of the program. 

While the gardens themselves are now gone, posters, seed packets, catalogs, booklets, photos, films, newspaper articles, diaries, and people’s memories still remain to tell us the story of the victory gardens. Now is the time, before it is to late, to ask your family 
members and older adult friends, what they remember about the Victory Gardens, World War II and the home front. We need to preserve these memories for future generations.

References:

1 Casdorph, Paul D., Let the Good Times Roll, page 82

2 Heide, Robert & Gilman, John, Home Front America, pages 62-64


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