Give Your Kids a History Lesson by Planting a Modern-Day Victory Garden

Each spring, I get the urge to garden. You might too. And sometimes, my emerging-from-winter-brain goes just a bit further. I envision gardens of grandeur that transform my suburban jungle of a yard into beautifully producing rows of veggies and fruits. But before I got started this year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like many of us, I was suddenly sidelined by social distancing, a spouse now working from home, finding toilet paper, sewing masks, chalk painting the driveway, and watching the news.

It wasn’t until I was reminded of my failed attempt at growing potatoes that I got back to planning a garden. I could do it, sure I could! I thought back to my grandfather for inspiration and thought about how he and my mother grew tons (literally) of potatoes during WWII out on Long Island. Back then, families planted gardens wherever they could because food was scarce and canned vegetables (among other foods) were rationed. Families were issued ration coupons indicating the amount of certain foods they could buy in the store. Family and community gardens produced many kinds of vegetables to help prevent food shortages. Excess food was often canned and used during winter months to supplement the amount of food available. Gardens sprang up everywhere, and even people without yards planted in small window boxes. Apartment dwellers planted rooftop gardens. All of these gardens became known as “victory gardens” throughout the United States (and other countries), in a resurgence of what were known as “war gardens” during WWI. Tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, beets, and peas were commonly grown vegetables back then. But victory gardens also introduced “new” crops to the American diet, such as Swiss chard and kohlrabi because they were easy to grow. Across America, many school yards had victory gardens and used their produce for school lunches. Everyone pitched in.

The U.S. government printed recipe books, agricultural companies gave tips on using seeds in different climates zones, and county agriculture agents even made home visits to help families plan multi-acre gardens. There were many related government publications–one of them titled, Guide For Planning The Local Victory Garden Program, along with different guidelines and subjects such as insect control, crop rotation, and food preservation. At one point, U.S. Crop Corps recruited more than a half million boys and girls to work as volunteers on farms during the summer. (Beginning of workcations? Yikes!)

With nearly 20 million victory gardens planted across the county at its height, they provided an estimated eight million tons of food for civilians, which allowed farmers to focus on feeding the soldiers fighting in the war overseas. According to The National WWII Museum’s Classroom Victory Garden Project at the time, there was one victory garden for every seven people. That’s what I call impressive!

Ready for another fascinating fact? In 1942, nearly 15 million families had planted victory gardens in the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt modeled the effort by planting a garden at the White House!

During this pandemic, with limited trips to the grocery store and mandated social distancing, many of us are turning to our own backyards and window boxes to supplement fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs. As the weather turns warmer and we’re in stay-at-home mode, why not start your own family victory garden? Whether you’re a first-time gardener or a seasoned horticulturalist, you’ll find plenty of resources to help you get started.

Planting a garden is also a great way to celebrate Earth Day on April 22. And since it’s also Kids Garden Month in April, you’ll also want to be sure to include the children! You can even register your victory garden and see where others are planted.

Ready to get started? Go for it! Get the whole family involved, and don’t be afraid to get a little dirt on your hands. It’ll be a fun outdoor family activity and a learning experience for the kids as you tell them about victory gardens during WWII. See what grows. It’ll be so worth it.

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