Our Hands On History Camp at Home begins later this month and we’re getting supplies ready for the campers to pick up. One activity for campers will involve learning about gardening and then planting heirloom seeds along with us, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, Seward House Museum, and the Seymour Library .

Gardening has seen a surge in popularity this year with more people than ever trying their hand at growing their own fruits and vegetables. While some of this is spurred by pure quarantine boredom, many people have started gardens out of worries about pandemic related food shortages. These “pandemic victory gardens” have their roots in the victory gardens of WWI and WWII.

World War I

During World War I there were severe food shortages, especially in Europe as agricultural workers were recruited into military service and farms became battlefields. Responsibility for feeding our allies fell to the United States. 

In March of 1917, Charles Lathrop Pack, a timberman and wealthy landowner, organized the National War Garden Commission to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort by planting, harvesting and storing their own fruits and vegetables so that more commercially grown food could be exported to Europe. People used any empty space they could, including school grounds, yards, window boxes, and even rooftops to grow food. Community gardens on public lands were tended by citizens without space of their own. President Woodrow Wilson and head of the U.S. food administration Herbert Hoover declared that “food will win the war” and posters encouraging victory gardens were seen alongside those for war bonds and liberty loans. This aggressive advertising campaign made citizens feel it was their patriotic duty to get planting, and inspired the estimated 5 million gardens that were started in the United States during WWI. 

Adults weren’t the only ones expected to pick up their shovels. The United States School Garden Army was founded as part of the Victory Garden campaign. The Bureau of Education distributed manuals to schools across the country, inviting children ages 9-15 to join in the war effort and pledge to “consecrate my head, heart, hand and health through food production and food conservation to help the World War and world peace.” The manuals gave the feel of a real military unit, detailing the number of members and officers in each ‘company,’ and rules on keeping their tools clean.

World War II

Victory Gardens sprung up again during WWII. Once again, commercial crops were diverted overseas while transportation was redirected towards moving troops and munitions instead of food. With the introduction of food rationing in the United States in the spring of 1942, Americans had an even greater incentive to grow their own fruits and vegetables in whatever locations they could find. Eleanor Roosevelt even planted a victory garden on the White House lawn. These gardens produced close to 40% of the country’s fresh vegetables during the war. 

Some of the most popular produce grown in these home gardens included beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, squash and Swiss chard. 

Pandemic Victory Gardens

Growing your own food has become popular once again, as Covid-19 has disrupted the food supply and early grocery store shortages caused shoppers to panic. Internet searches on how to build a raised garden bed skyrocketed, seeds and potting soil sold out in many stores across the country, and news articles exploring the return of gardening abound.

Do you have a garden? What are you planting this year?

Learn More:

Food Supply Anxiety Brings Back Victory Gardens – New York Times, March 25, 2020

A Short History of the Victory Garden – LA Times, April 16, 2020

Can Coronavirus Victory Gardens Quell Post-Pandemic Hunger? – PBS, June 26, 2020