War gardens were first planted during WWI to ease pressure on the US food supply. The country’s first priority then was to feed troops fighting abroad and to assist with food shortages in war-torn Europe. Towards the end of WWI these war gardens were sometimes called “victory gardens,” a name that would be used again in WWII.
During WWII, Americans were encouraged to plant victory gardens by both the US government and by private industry. Eye-catching posters, advertisements, pamphlets and other public service announcements promoting gardens and offering plans and tips could be seen and heard everywhere. See a promotional film sponsored by Better Homes and Gardens or listen to a short radio announcement. Victory gardens were both patriotic and thrifty and to plant one was doing one’s part on the home front to support the war effort. Gardens allowed more commercially produced food to be sent abroad. They also built a sense of community and saved valuable resources like metal for canned foods, and gas to transport vegetables across the country. Americans pooled resources and planted vegetables and fruit trees on any spare property, including back yards, schools, businesses, vacant lots, even sometimes balconies and rooftops. Anyone not fighting in the war maintained the gardens. Sometimes organized groups like the Women’s Land Army or School Garden armies did the work, both of whose origins were in WWI, and sometimes families or individuals worked in the gardens.
Greenbelt’s allotment plots (see below), which were included as part of the original design of the community, were ready made areas for victory gardens and our oral histories reveal that many residents remember gardening in war time. Farm Security Administration photographer, Marjorie Collins, took shots in 1942 which depict large displays of seed packets for sale at the variety store in Greenbelt and which show residents busily tending their plots. In 1943, over 20 million gardens were planted, producing up to 40% of the vegetables consumed in the United States. Many families kept their gardens going long after the war ended.
Today, as the corona virus crisis wreaks havoc with the economy and as people try to limit their trips to grocery stores, there’s been a resurgence of victory gardens. Once again, planting a garden is seen as an important part of efforts to fight in a new kind of war – against an illness that is taking way too many lives. CBS News recently ran a piece about the surging interest in victory gardens. The Museum planted a victory garden in conjunction with our exhibit, Green from the Start: A History of Gardening in Greenbelt, and although we can’t plant one this time, we are cheering on the many other historic sites and museums who are doing just that. Check out the efforts being made at Old Salem Museums & Gardens as they plant a victory garden in order to donate food to a local food bank. Stay tuned for more information about efforts to can the produce from WWII victory gardens.
Extra credit: Watch this promotional film produced by the federal government documenting a Maryland family as they grow food in the victory garden