FARGO — Are you familiar with old-time Victory Gardens, and have you heard they’re coming back?

Let’s begin by playing the game “Tell us something about you that most people don’t know,” and I’ll go first. You probably know that I’m a native North Dakotan, but did you know my dad was born in Philadelphia and moved while young to neighboring New Jersey, which became his parents’ lifelong home?

An American World War II-era poster promoting Victory Gardens. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
An American World War II-era poster promoting Victory Gardens. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

When I was young, our family took road trips every few years to visit our grandparents in New Jersey, which is officially known as The Garden State. As a young boy, I was especially impressed with the watermelons Grandpa Kinzler grew in his garden, and I still have memories of their flavor. Roadside stands were everywhere, heaped with fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, hoping to attract city dwellers driving to New Jersey’s ocean beaches for the weekend.

I remember Grandma Kinzler telling us about the Victory Gardens their family grew during World War I when they resided in the heart of Philadelphia, and again at their New Jersey home during World War II. Planting a Victory Garden made people feel like they were helping to win the war, especially when their family members were overseas on the battlefront.

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Victory Gardens have an interesting history. During World War I, food production fell drastically worldwide while food prices soared, and in 1917 the United States National War Garden Commission launched a campaign to promote what were termed “war gardens.” Also nicknamed “Victory Gardens,” they were promoted on all available private and public lands, and over 5 million gardens were started, growing vegetables and fruits that exceeded $1.2 billion by the war’s end.

A British poster by Peter Fraser from the World War II era. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
A British poster by Peter Fraser from the World War II era. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

In World War II, as food rationing began, the United States Department of Agriculture encouraged the planting of Victory Gardens, emphasizing to urban and rural residents that their gardens would help to lower the price of vegetables needed by the War Department to feed the troops. Almost 40% of the vegetables produced during the war years came from these gardens, located in home yards and public spaces. By 1943, there were 12 million Victory Gardens in cities and 6 million on farms. Even Eleanor Roosevelt planted a garden on the White House lawn.

The government not only encouraged people to plant Victory Gardens to supplement the food supply, but also to boost morale. Gardeners could feel empowered, knowing their contribution was helping the war effort. Victory Gardens became a part of daily life on the homefront and even helped unite communities, as neighbors shared gardening information and experiences.

This U.S. poster from World War I features Columbia sowing seeds. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
This U.S. poster from World War I features Columbia sowing seeds. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

And now, Victory Gardens are back, once again becoming popular. But this time, the goal is different.

The new Victory Garden is about self-reliance. It's about growing your own food so you have control over how it is grown and how much you pay.

Today’s gardens are considered victories for healthy eating, wellness, teaching children about fresh food and promoting a sustainable lifestyle. It offers a family increased food security.

Like war gardens, today’s Victory Gardens are being planted whoever space is available, including front yards, apartment balconies, school grounds and raised beds.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Don Kinzler's Growing Together columns

How to have a Victory Garden

A Victory Garden is a concept. It’s a way of thinking about gardening: a philosophy that works in gardens of all sizes.

Today’s Victory Garden emphasizes soil health by incorporating organic materials, including compost, manure and peat moss. Keep soil covered with mulches to encourage soil microbes and conserve moisture. Use pesticides judiciously only after trying other control methods.

When planting a Victory Garden, focus on foods your family eats and enjoys and types you’d like to store, preserve, can or freeze for winter eating. Where space permits, plant fruits like raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, apples and plums.

If new to gardening, study, ask questions, dig in, attend classes and remember that experience is a great teacher. Today’s Victory Gardens share an important quality with the gardens of a century ago: they unite us as we share our experiences and knowledge.

Don Kinzler presents gardening programs

All are invited to a new February program series called “Everybody’s Yard and Garden Guide,” hosted by the North Dakota State University Extension-Cass County. Each hourlong program will be presented by horticulturist Don Kinzler. The series will take place at 7 p.m. in the Bison Room of the Cass County Courthouse Annex, 1010 Second Ave. S., Fargo. The programs are free and open to all. For more information, contact Kinzler at 701-241-5707 or donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.

Dates and topics are as follows:

  • Feb. 5: Starting Seeds Indoors: How to grow your own flower and vegetable plants from seed indoors.
  • Feb. 12: All About Houseplants: Everything you need to know about growing lush indoor plants.
  • Feb. 19: Container Gardening: Tips for growing flowers and vegetables in pots and planters on balconies, decks and patios for homes, condos and apartments.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.