This Time, the Victory Garden Must Outlast the War
Coronavirus has caused a resurgence of backyard gardening — but will we keep planting once the pandemic is over?
Stephen Heyman’s new book, “The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution,” will be published on April 14 by W.W. Norton.
Last week, I planted a victory garden.
It’s rather pathetic at the moment, just three large pots on the concrete patio of my one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh in which I’ve sown seeds for vegetables like Swiss chard and radishes that can be directly planted this early in the season.
But I’ve got big plans as we approach the last frost. I’ve started composting kitchen scraps. I’ve stocked up on soil. I’ve ordered more seeds and 10-pound grow bags. I’m building a long box planter and beginning to alarm my wife with talk of our “crop plan.” I’m calculating how much food I can grow on my patio with the smallest carbon footprint and asking myself with a good deal of shame why it took an earth-shaking pandemic for me to build a little garden, since it has already given me pleasure, purpose, exercise — and hopefully, someday soon, will also give me food.
It seems I’m not alone in this experiment. The coronavirus pandemic has unearthed something buried deep inside the national psyche. Seeds are selling out. The English garden merchant Suttons has seen a 4,000 percent increase in visits to its website compared to last March. Garden columnists are abuzz. YouTube is featuring how-to videos like “9 Survival Gardening Crops to Grow in a Post Apocalyptic World.” As an overwhelmed organic nursery owner recently told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s the rebirth of the victory garden.”
This isn’t the first time that Americans have tried to recapture the spirit of one of the greatest grassroots efforts of World War II. Yet at no other moment in our recent history have we needed the consolation, stability, and sustenance of a garden more than we do right now. Many of us are suddenly trapped at home, restless, worried about our health and our future. In this climate, the decision to garden feels to me less like a choice and more like an obligation.
At no other moment in our recent history have we needed the consolation, stability, and sustenance of a garden more than we do right now.
We have so much room to work with. All Americans who are healthy in body but feel helpless in spirit, who are stuck at home without a project, should be taking a hard look at whatever outdoor space they have, especially if they have a lawn. As Michael Pollan pointed out nearly 30 years ago in “Second Nature,” our property lines are an illusion. Your yard is actually part of a 42 million-acre national greensward (larger in area than all of the country’s corn fields combined) requiring 800 million gallons of gas to mow per year, in addition to mind-numbing quantities of water, carbon-intensive fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides that run off into our waterways and threaten our health and environment.
All this is spent growing mostly non-native turf grasses that produce far more greenhouse gases than they soak up. What would happen if a fraction of that useless greenery became, as a result of this crisis, a source of healthy food at a time when our food system is stressed? Or a giant carbon sink built out of fruit trees, native plants, and deep-rooted perennial crops that could encourage biodiversity and save soil while mostly tending themselves?
A 2017 study in California’s Santa Barbara County showed that for every pound of homegrown produce pulled from a climate-friendly urban garden, we can eliminate two pounds of greenhouse emissions. And we can feel better while we are doing it. In addition to providing exercise and healthy food, gardening — as gardeners will tell you — is good for mental health. (Scientists have actually discovered that soil contains beneficial bacteria that work on the body like a natural antidepressant).
You could dismiss this as a hopelessly utopian vision, in which consumers who are increasingly accustomed to ready-made meals delivered by app suddenly become backyard and rooftop and window-box farmers, magically cooling the planet by feeding themselves. Yet we have done something like this before, facing up to a moment of extreme crisis, mobilizing an unlikely army of ordinary people who turned themselves into extraordinarily productive, frugal, and conscientious gardeners. Given our current consumption habits, the success of the victory garden program during World War II — which at its peak provided 40 percent of the nation’s fruit and vegetables — seems particularly staggering.
The history of victory gardens actually goes back to World War I. The timber baron Charles Lathrop Pack spearheaded a campaign to build “war gardens” chiefly to supply food aid to European countries on the brink of famine. The effort succeeded brilliantly — 5.2 million were planted during the war. “In the lexicon of the typical American,” wrote Pack, ”there is no such word as ‘cannot.’” After the Armistice, Pack urged Americans not to put away their spades, but to continue growing crops in their backyards to help feed starving European civilians. “The War Garden of 1918 must become the Victory Garden of 1919.” And so, out of the ashes of the war — and in the shadow of the 1918 flu pandemic — a new term was born.
The next global conflict created an even greater demand for American-grown food. In the fall of 1941, months before America entered World War II, Claude Wickard, F.D.R.’s secretary of agriculture, called for the “largest production in the history of American agriculture to meet the expanding food needs of this country and nations resisting the Axis.” Yet when the idea of resurrecting war gardens was suggested, Wickard balked. He even tried (unsuccessfully) to block Eleanor Roosevelt from planting a victory garden on the White House lawn. As Judith Sumner explains in “Plants Go To War: A Botanical History of World War II,” Wickard thought that the first lady’s endorsement of gardening could be “seen as a challenge to American farmers, the nation’s primary crop growers.” Wickard also believed that most ordinary Americans would be abject failures as gardeners and would waste precious seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.
But after Pearl Harbor and mobilization, demand for food spiked to new highs just as farmworkers were being drafted or sent to work in munitions factories. If civilians didn’t start growing their own food, Wickard realized, the war effort could starve. On December 19, he convened a National Defense Garden Conference in Washington, drawing support from a wide range of government and business organizations — from the Works Progress Administration to seed companies and garden clubs. Even this group doubted that city folk could be made into green thumbs and worried that the cost of creating victory gardens outside of farming communities and suburbs might “exceed the value of the crops harvested.”
Yet once the campaign got underway, enthusiasm for gardening — which guaranteed fresh food in a time of rationing — spread from the countryside to every city in America. During the first growing season of the war, 1942, an estimated 15 million victory gardens were planted in backyards, schoolyards, and prison yards and on rooftops, factory lots, and village greens. The number increased to 20 million by 1943. That year, according to the historian Amy Bentley, three-fifths of the population pitched in, producing more than 8 million tons of food.
Some victory gardeners were experienced, but the vast majority “didn’t know good topsoil from the south side of pumpkin seed,” as a press release from the Writers’ War Board put it. Yet they learned. They worked cooperatively. They tried to nurture the soil, save their seeds and extend their harvests late into the year. Their efforts not only kept America nourished but boosted morale on the homefront. According to Sumner, in 1943, victory gardens covered 700 million acres of otherwise unproductive American soil — an area about the size of Rhode Island.
One of the poster boys for victory gardens and the self-sufficiency they represented was the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louis Bromfield, whose forgotten story is the subject of my new book. A Paris expat between the wars, Bromfield returned to his native Ohio in 1938 to found an experimental farm called Malabar. Horrified by the Dust Bowl, the rise of factory farms, and the growing reliance on harmful new chemicals, he became one of the earliest proponents of organic and sustainable agriculture and launched a national campaign to improve America’s relationship with the land.
During the war, Bromfield thought victory gardens were an essential part of this movement — not only because they were feeding the homefront but also because they were contributing “something permanent to the life and economy of the nation.” He believed victory gardeners would not stop once victory was achieved, that they were planting the seeds for future generations of gardeners.
Alas, Bromfield’s dream that the war would produce a “new race of pioneers” to tend the earth in harmony with nature was a fantasy. While his ideas inspired back-to-the-landers and conservation-minded farmers, the average American consumer stopped growing food immediately after V-J Day. Millions of gardens vanished from the country without a trace. And in the decades to come, America embraced an eating culture that pushed us farther and farther away from the source of our food, with major consequences to both the environment and public health.
For those planting gardens now, I hope we will all enjoy a rich harvest and the security of homegrown food as we work to flatten the curve. But, like Bromfield, I also hope we will not forget the value of gardening when this crisis has ended. May this year’s victory gardens be not only a temporary salve but a perennial habit.