The Rebirth of the Victory Garden: Freedom Gardens

Get Creative in the Garden with Bryn — By on March 1, 2009 12:10 PM

During World Wars I & II, food gardening in urban and suburban spaces was promoted by the government as a patriotic and fulfilling duty.  These gardens came to be known as Victory Gardens, although the concept started out under different names such as “liberty gardens,” “war gardens,” and “food gardens for defense.”  Those people who remained behind, when the soldiers went off to war, were encourage to contribute to the war effort in many ways including growing and preserving some of their own food.
Throughout WWI (1914-1918,) Europe had great difficulty producing enough food.  The war started in the summer and most farmers went off to war, leaving their ripening fields behind.  As the war progressed, much of Europe lay within the war zone, making farming difficult, if not impossible.  It fell to North America to attempt to feed the Allies, despite the perils of shipping into a war zone.  (Canada joined WWI at the beginning, in 1914.  The United States didn’t join the war until 1917, after a German submarine sank the luxury ocean liner the Lusitania.)  Even before the US joined WWI, its people were experiencing scarcity of some foods and some had started gardening to supplement their diets. 
In the early months of 1917 Charles Lathrop Pack founded the National War Garden Commission to increase food production and food conservation.  In their own words, the Commission strove “to arouse the patriots of America to the importance of putting all idle land to work, to teach them how to do it, and to educate them to conserve by canning and drying all food that they could not use while fresh” (from The War Garden Victorious by Pack, published 1919).  The Commission published free home gardening and food preservation publications as well as cartoons, press releases and posters with slogans such as “Every War Garden a Peace Plant,” “Sow the Seeds of Victory” and “Can Vegetables, Fruit and the Kaiser too.”  The National War Garden Commission wasn’t the only government agency producing posters about food issues either.
In addition to the National War Garden Commission, the US government also created the United States School Garden Army (USSGA), sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Education, and the Woman’s Land Army of America (WLAA). The USSGA aimed to make agricultural education a formal part of the public school curriculum and also instituted school-based cultivation of war gardens. The USSGA program required changes in labor laws and educational codes to permit and mandate youth work in gardening and agriculture, and set food production goals for youth (in volume and dollar value).  By the end of the war, several million children had “enlisted” as “soldiers of the soil.” (For more info, see this PDF monograph.)
The Woman’s Land Army of America (don’t worry, the advertisements said, it’s only “Until the Boys Come Back”) was created in April of 1918 and was based on the Woman’s Land Army created by the British government in 1915.  The WLAA placed more than 20,000 women as agricultural laborers.  In California, members of the WLAA agitated for and became the first group of agricultural workers to receive equal pay for equal work, a maximum workday with overtime, weight lifting restrictions, and protection under California’s Workman’s Compensation Insurance and Safety Act.  (Check out the Handbook of Standards for the Woman’s Land Army of America, published in 1919.)  Although the WLAA effort was resisted by some conservative farmers and government officials, it was strongly supported by President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson.  (She famously replaced the White House garden crew with a flock of sheep that grazed on the lawn. The sale of their wool raised $50,000 for the war effort.)
The National War Garden Commission estimated that there were 3 million garden plots nationwide in 1917.  In 1918, this had increased to 5,285,000 plots and produced over 528.5 million pounds of produce.  Even if this is an exaggeration, there is no question that the war gardening effort was impressive and useful.  (The site “Sprouts in the Sidewalk” has a good collection of images and info on WWI gardening efforts.)  Although the war gardening effort dropped off with the end of WWI and the WLAA disbanded as the soldiers returned home (to return briefly during WWII,) many people kept their gardens and the school gardens program also continued.
The arrival of World War II (1939-1945) created a similar emphasis on personal and community gardens.  In 1941, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) launched the National Victory Garden Program.  By encouraging the general population to create victory gardens in any available space, large or small, the Program hoped to achieve a number of goals: free up commercial food supplies for the Armed Forces; reduce demand on materials needed for food preservation so those materials could go to the war effort instead; make available additional railroad transport for war munitions instead of food supplies; maintain the health & morale of those left “on the home front”; and teach self-sufficiency & food preservation techniques for times of food shortages (the USDA instituted food price controls and food rationing from 1942 to 1946.)  The non-profit National Victory Garden Institute was created in 1942 by private individuals to support the victory garden effort as well.  Again, the White House was also instrumental in supporting the victory garden movement–Eleanor Roosevelt created a victory garden at the White House in 1943.
Victory gardens were promoted in much the same way as they were in WWI: posters, educational pamphlets and books, newspaper and magazine articles.  By this time there was a new medium available as well: film.  Popeye and Barney Bear created victory gardens.  Private SNAFU learned how non-soldiers were helping the war effort, including planting victory gardens, in the episode “The Home Front.”  The USDA also created a 20 minute educational film titled Victory Garden.  (I can’t help but comment on this film.  The more cynical side of me wants to point out that many pesticides and chemical fertilizers were by-products of the war effort.  Besides, if you have access to a horse to plow the field, you have access to an excellent source of fertilizer.  Instead of chasing that chicken out of the garden, once the plants are a respectable size, let her in to eat the bugs, scratch the soil and add her fertilizer.  When you pull the lambs quarter and amaranth “weeds” out of the carrot seedlings, add them to your spring salad.  I do like the comments about timing your garden according to which trees are blooming though.)
To see garden education efforts for another county, check out the British Ministry of Agriculture’s Allotment and Garden Guides, published in 1945.  (“Allotment” is the British term for plot in a public gardening space, much like the American “community garden.”)  There are also a number of personal stories about WWII and victory gardens to be found online.  Try here, here and here for a start.  Again, the website “Sprouts in the Sidewalk” has a good collection of images and info on WWII gardening efforts.
According to USDA estimates, over 20 million garden plots were planted and provided over 40% of the vegetables consumed nationally.  After the end of WWII, most of these gardening efforts were dropped.  (Although in Great Britain rationing continued for a while after the end of the war and therefore victory gardens continued to help make up the difference.)  Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts, (est. 1942) and Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota, (est. 1943) are believed to be the last two remaining public victory gardens (although Fenway primarily grows flowers now.)
Recently there has been a revival of the Victory Garden concept, although this time it isn’t a patriotic response to war, nor is it instigated by the government.  There is even an online petition to get the First Family to plant a large organic victory garden on the “First Lawn” with the produce going to the White House kitchen and local food pantries.  There are a number of factors driving this return to growing our own food.  Global warming and an awareness of how industrial food production contributes to this.  Rising oil prices, peak oil and an awareness of how oil figures in to nearly every aspect of industrial food production-fertilizer, pesticides, machinery, transportation.  The various issues caused by monocropping.  Rising food prices.  A distrust of the Big Agriculture and a desire to know just what is in your food.  The concept of “food miles.”  Wanting to reconnect to nature and the basics of living.  The list goes on.
While much of this gardening revival is happening under the term “Victory Gardening-” “Liberty Gardens,” “Freedom Gardens” and other labels are also used.  I have to say, I’m partial to “Freedom Gardens.”  Declare your freedom from Big Ag!  Declare your freedom from tasteless produce developed purely for its looks and ability to withstand shipping!  Victory implies that there is an end in sight, at which point things will return to how they were (maybe with some changes.)  Freedom must always be carefully guarded.
Regardless of what you want to call it, consider growing some of your own food this year.  It could be as small as a window box, patio container, or a few plants slipped in among your flowers.  Or you could go for it and replace your lawn with a garden.  If you don’t have access to any outdoor space, join a community garden.  You’ll be in good company.
For online help and inspiration:
Red, White & Grew Blog

Victory Gardens, San Francisco
Liberty Gardens, Illinois
Slow Food Nation ’08, created a victory garden in front of San Francisco’s City Hall
The Victory Garden Foundation
Farmer in Chief, Michael Pollan’s open letter to the President-elect as printed in the NY Times

Most seed catalogs will recommend seeds good for beginners.
Just beware of the $64 Tomato…
Happy gardening!
Bryn Richard is a licensed landscape architect with a strong interest in sustainable design.  She can be reached at and welcomes your questions and suggestions for further articles.

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