WWI Victory Garden Propaganda Poster

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

My grandmother was the kind of person that had tricks for everything, especially when it came to the garden. Aphids got you down? Try a homemade garlic or hot pepper spray. African violets dying? Give them a quarter turn or move them to a more northerly facing window. Tomatoes stunted? Well, you might be on your own there. Growing the perfect tomato is simply in an Italian’s blood.

Her knowledge seemed endless to me as a child, and rather than becoming disillusioned as an adult, I have come to respect even more the breadth and depth of her wisdom. She taught my mother, who in turn taught me, that knowing how to grow plants is a blessing, a tradition, and a labor of love that is and has always been integral to the human experience and survival.

You see, for my grandma’s generation, and her mother’s before her, and so on, gardening was not just a hobby, it was a necessity. For immigrants to the US, jobs were scarce, pay was low, and food on the table was not always a guarantee. The story was the same for millions of other families all over the country. Urban gardens provided a sense of security and sustenance for those that lived not knowing what the next day might bring.

 And then the World Wars hit and food scarcity stopped being a problem just for the poor. Labor was limited and transportation systems were needed to move machinery, weapons, and other goods instead of grains. To combat these shortages, the government encouraged the planting of “victory gardens” to reduce the demand on the food supply system and support the efforts of the war. By the final years of the conflict, over 40% of all fresh food in the country was coming from household gardens, playing no small role in sustaining the health and morale of US citizens while food supplies ran low.

Seeds of Victory

But why is any of this relevant to us today?

While we may not be in a conflict with another nation or experiencing the type of poverty seen by our grandparents, we are still indeed at war: only this time, the enemies are obesity, climate change, and a burgeoning population. As many of the solutions offered by corporations and governments have clearly not solved these problems (and in many instances made them worse), I say it is time we take the path of our predecessors and give the power back to the people by putting our spades to the dirt!

Now I am not suggesting that we all quit our jobs and live out our days hoeing and weeding and struggling to make ends meet as in the days of yore. Even my grandmother who loved her garden almost as much as her grandchildren probably wouldn’t have suggested something so drastic. But planting a small-scale garden in the yard, on the roof, or in a greenhouse? Now that is another story.

Since the time of victory gardens, urban gardens have been used to encourage a sense of community, healthy eating, and purpose for those who choose to practice it. In projects all over the country, gardens have sprung up in vacant lots providing livelihoods for the unemployed and breathing life and beauty back into economically depressed cities. Gardens in school playgrounds have taught children about the miracles of the earth and the benefits of eating healthy, while community gardens have provided neighborhoods with nutritious food supplies that sustain the soul as well as the stomach.

This is not to say that urban gardens are the silver bullet for all of today’s trials and tribulations, but if they have provided families with food and even helped pave the path to victories in wars for many generations past, who’s to say they can’t have the same kinds of monumental impacts in today’s world?

Berit Nelsen Database & Research Specialist

Berit is an east coast transplant who has been living in Boulder, Colorado since 2010. Berit has dual BSc degrees in Development Sociology and Communications from Cornell University as well as an MA in Social Development and... More

4 Responses to “Deep Roots: A (brief) history of, and case for, urban gardening”

  1. Alithane

    This is so clever ! Thanks for all that i have read ! Espoir ?! Xx

  2. Michelle Lee

    “By the final years of the conflict, over 40% of all fresh food in the country was coming from household gardens”. I wonder how that compares to now? Let’s make it a goal! The benefits go beyond just eating healthier and saving money on groceries. Our physical environment would look and feel more comfortable. There would be less hardscape, runoff, and heat. Instead our streetscapes would become places where people want to walk and hang out. Thanks for blogging!

  3. Carole Ly Sing Lao

    Nathalie, my dear friend, yes….”espoir”; the landscapes of our lives are created by our own willingness to plant and grow 🙂 Let’s do it!

  4. Carole Ly Sing Lao

    I am not sure for today but this is from the National Gardening Association:
    “During the past five years there’s been a significant shift toward more Americans growing their own food in home and community gardens, increasing from 36 million households in 2008 to 42 million in 2013”.
    We are on the right path and our community work is what can trigger change! Thank you for the connection!

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