A short history of the victory garden and how to get through the pandemic by planting your own food

Put down the remote, step away from the fridge and do something that can really make a difference: Create your own victory garden.

Planting your own victory garden is a great exercise in the current pandemic. Dreamstime / TNS

It’s no surprise we’re embracing victory gardens today: During both world wars, patriotic Americans kept the home fires burning — and their soldiers fed — by converting any available space into a garden. It was an act of defiance and self-reliance with a shovel and a hoe.

The “enemy” today is COVID-19, and between illness and stay-at-home restrictions around the world, there are already concerns about how our food supplies will be affected. Just consider: Who’s out there planting now? Who will harvest? And how will the crops get to our markets?

Growing food is one small thing we can do to regain control and help ourselves — a way to improve our mental and physical health during an optimum time for starting a vegetable garden.

The first victory gardens — initially called “war gardens” — started around the same time of the year, in March of 1917, a month before the United States entered World War I.

Initially it was a call for all Americans to plant produce in their yards and vacant lots, even nearby parks and fields, to free up food for our starving allies abroad. When the U.S. joined those allies and entered the war, the issue became graver: How to feed our soldiers as well as the folks back home.


The challenge was to find a way to get ordinary, non-farming folks involved in growing their own food, wrote timber tycoon Charles Lathrop Pack, who organized the National War Garden Commission.

“Oddly enough, it is usually hardest to influence man for his own benefit. The matter of home food production was no exception to the rule,” Pack wrote in his 1919 memoir, “The War Garden Victorious.”

“Before the people would spring to the hoe, as they instinctively sprang to the rifle, they had to be shown, and shown conclusively, that the bearing of the one implement was as patriotic a duty as the carrying of the other. Only persistent publicity, only continual preachment, could convince the public of that.”

Thus began months of earnest “preachment,” and homebound Yanks responded with enthusiasm, much like their counterparts in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Eventually war gardens became known as victory gardens and even children were pressed into service, through the U.S. Bureau of Education’s United States School Garden Army.

In August of 1917, a Quaker-raised, Stanford-educated engineer millionaire named Herbert Hoover — yes, the same Hoover who was president at the start of the Great Depression — took over the newly formed U.S. Food Administration to regulate the production, distribution and conservation of food to soldiers, allies and the folks at home.

According to the National Archives, Hoover refused to accept a salary as the country’s new “food dictator,” arguing it “would give him the moral authority he needed to ask the American people to sacrifice to support the war effort.”

President Woodrow Wilson declared, “Food will win the war,” but Hoover correctly believed Americans would respond better to patriotic pleas than coercion. Within weeks, housewives were signing pledge cards to conserve food and embracing wheatless Mondays, meatless Tuesdays and porkless Saturdays, according to the National Archives.

Schoolchildren — already facing a brave new culinary world of “sugarless candy, whale meat and horse steaks,” according to the archives — were asked to sign their own, rather tortured pledge:


At table I’ll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate,

And I’ll not eat between meals, but for supper time I’ll wait.

One wonders how they got children to the table at all, with those menu items, but by 1918, according to the archives, “the United States was exporting three times as much breadstuffs, meat and sugar as it had prior to the war.”

Victory gardens resurfaced during World War II, when many foods were rationed to make sure we had enough to feed our troops. Once again, growing a garden was a sign of patriotism, but it was also a kind of defiant gesture, a way to take back some control over fractured lives.

Which sounds like a winning recipe for making do today. Here's what you can do.

Maybe all you have room for are a few pots on a sunny balcony or windowsill. That works. Stick a tomato plant in a big, deep pot and basil by its side, and you will have the makings of a salad or marinara sauce in just a few months.

Maybe you have room in your yard — a patch of lawn you never use anymore or a weedy corner in the sunniest part of your yard. Cover it with cardboard and 8 inches of mulch, water well and start planting, filling the holes with compost and organic potting soil until the magic of lasagna mulching creates some rich, healthy soil.

Yes, these are small victories against a huge, invisible enemy, but they are also a strike against helplessness, isolation and fear. It’s part of our heritage as a society: Americans tend to rebel against dictates but willingly embrace patriotic calls to action.


Seriously, what’s the downside of growing a few vegetables? Too much vitamin D from working outdoors? A farmer’s tan? So much produce you (gasp) might have to share? Food banks are already seeing double the demand. Planting food now can help you and others get through the uncertain days ahead.

It’s also a great way to improve your mental health.

Take it from me; when I’m hanging by a thread, my plants keep me sane, and all they ask is a little water, sun and affection.

Here are some tips for making your own victory garden:

1. Pick a sunny spot

Find a spot for your garden plot (or pots) that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight. Not sure? Professional gardener Lauri Kranz of Edible Gardens L.A. and co-author of “A Garden Can Be Anywhere,” recommends taking a photo of your yard every two hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to see where you can find the most consistent sun.

2. Prepare your soil

Prepping your soil before you plant is the most important thing you can do to have a successful garden (after ensuring it will get enough sun). Compost, aged steer manure, seaweed and other organic amendments can help create a rich, loamy soil full of the beneficial microbes that help your plants get the water and nutrients they need. No need to dig up all your soil; just add the layers of organic amendments and use a garden fork to mix them. If you’re short on organic amendments or time, fill your raised beds or the planting holes in your garden with organic potting soil, which is full of the healthy ingredients you need.

3. Or your containers

If you are planting in pots, use organic potting soil — never regular soil — which has all the nutrients your plants need for a good start. For deep-rooted plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, choose a pot at least knee-high. Check root depth on this chart created by Los Angeles County’s Cooperative Extension office and add at least 4 inches to the estimated depths to make sure the roots have plenty of room, says master gardener Yvonne Savio, creator of the blog.

4. How will you water?

The easiest technique is a drip irrigation system that waters automatically two to three times a week. Kranz lays half-inch irrigation hoses at one end of her raised bed boxes and then strings quarter-inch perforated hoses the length of the box, 6 inches apart. Drip irrigation is also good for keeping water off leaves to prevent mildew with plants like squash and cucumbers. Savio favors burying 5-gallon nursery buckets (the kind with drainage holes in the bottom) so the tops are 4 inches above the soil. She then plants around the buckets and fills them with water once or twice a week so the moisture goes deep into the ground. That technique encourages roots to grow deep, so they’re better protected from the summer heat. No matter what system you choose, water deeply two or three times a week, rather than short, frequent sessions that keep water from going deep in the ground.


5. Choose your crops

Before you buy, make a plan based on your available space and the things your family will actually eat. This is a great time to be planting in Southern California, since you can still put in a crop of fast-growing salad makings — such as lettuce, arugula, spinach and radishes — that will have time to mature before the summer heat causes the plants to “bolt” or go to seed. Meanwhile, start you warm-season crops now so they can get well settled in the ground before the onset of summer’s highest heat. Corn and pumpkins may sound fun, but they require a lot of ground, so make sure you have the space. Savio and Kranz recommend choosing veggies you know your family will eat, and maybe one surprise — such as an eggplant or artichoke — to introduce your family to a new food. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are most easily grown from seedlings, but the pros recommend planting both seeds and seedlings with crops such as summer squash, cucumbers, beets and beans to stagger your harvests.

6. Include herbs and flowers

Include herbs in your garden, as close as possible to your kitchen door, and remember to include flowers such as cosmos, nasturtiums and sunflowers, as well as flowering herbs such as fennel and African basil. Savio has a handy list of what to plant, listed by month, on her website .

7. Add mulch

Once you plant, cover the soil with a thick layer (at least 4 inches) of organic mulch, such as straw, leaves or compost. Savio likes adding a thin layer of coffee grounds as well but recommends no deeper than half an inch, since the grounds can repel water if they are applied too thickly. The mulch helps preserve moisture and deter weeds while feeding the soil as it breaks down.

8. Visit regularly

Visit your garden several times a week, if not daily, to admire its progress, make sure the plants are getting enough water and head off any weed or insect infestations. Invest in a good hula hoe or diamond hoe weeder to slice weeds at their base, leaving their roots to decompose and feed the soil. When your garden plants start flowering, use an organic fertilizer to give them an extra boost to start setting fruit. Kranz prefers an organic kelp fertilizer mixed with water that she sprays on the plants, something children can do with a watering can. The pros say the best protection against pests is to keep your plants healthy and act quickly once you see an infestation. Neither Savio nor Kranz recommends chemical pesticides; instead they use blasts of water to dislodge pests like aphids or a spray made from neem oil, a natural pesticide. If the infestation is really bad, don’t get sentimental. Just pull out the infected plants, they say, and start again.

Like everything worthwhile in life, there’s always another day.

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