A Smart Garden

      more than just a pretty space


"The Victory Garden - Revisited"
by Cat Murray
Certified Nursery Professional
Organic Gardener

Certain special days when the sky is blue, the neighborhood is quiet, and a flock of B-17’s growl overhead on their way to Pasadena – okay, so that last part only happens twice a year on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, but it certainly gives this tale a bit more atmosphere, doesn't it? - I sit back on the little stool in my Victory Garden, munch a ration biscuit with homemade jam, sip some chicory coffee, and dream I'm on the home-front. Which I am. 

My house had a great Victory Garden during World War II.  Granted, that was almost 70 years ago, but give me a pair of overalls and some heirloom seeds and I'll give you a Victory Garden that would make the home-front rationer of days-gone-by proud. 

What exactly is a Victory Garden, you ask?  Let’s start with a quick history lesson. 

Use it up, wear it out, and make it do or do without!
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 set off more than a wave of enlistments.  It also set off a wave of greed and hoarding.  With embargos and attacks on the rise, supplies were not replenished in due time, if at all.  In those first few months, a very small minority who had the ability and money to stockpile food did so, leaving everyone else to deal with the kind of panic that only empty shelves and larders can inspire.  The government quickly stepped in to avert price gouging, riots and famine by rationing EVERYTHING and setting up a system whereby everyone received their fair share and no more.  Butter, eggs, meat, sugar and coffee were the first to be put on the list.  A pound of sugar or a pound of butter had to last a month, and that included not only your coffee, but also your baking and canning too.  Even if you had the money to pay for extra, without your ration stamps you only got dirty looks from your grocer and the people in line behind you.

Metal, glass, cloth and paper needed to package food was next, leading to a mania for recycling and reusing that has never been achieved again, but should be.  For instance, Milk bottles were left outside the door to be collected, cleaned, sterilized, refilled and delivered over and over again. 

One thing after another appeared on the ration lists, making the old ways of packaging and transport obsolete.  Fruits and vegetables were technically not rationed, but with gasoline and coal going to production of weapons and bombers, there was almost no way to get them from the growing grounds to the consumers. This wasn't just a national thing, either.  Worldwide shortages put the pinch on everybody.  You could complain about it, alright, but not much. The alternative was much worse.  People were starving to death in places you'd never associate with famine, such as Paris. One of the biggest and easiest things you could do to help them, and yourself, was to free up some food production for those who really needed it.

Grow Your Own - Can Your Own!
The Victory Garden held the solutions to many of these problems.  If you couldn't import food, and you couldn't find it at the local store, or if you didn't have enough ration points to purchase it even if it WAS available, then the only sensible thing was to grow your own food.  Overnight, front lawns and backyards vanished, replaced by neat rows of vegetables and fruit trees.  If you had an apartment, you could grow just about anything in a pot, and boy did you ever try to!  Pots and windowboxes showed up everywhere: on patios, rails, fences, hanging from trees and rooftops.  The government sent free pamphlets, plans, or even seeds if you asked for them.  Whole communities got together in vacant lots with the secure knowledge that nothing was going to be built there for the duration, since wood, steel, paper and all other construction supplies had been commandeered for the war.  And even if they were available, who would build it?  Certainly not the able-bodied men.  As a popular song put it, "What's good is in the Army, what's left will never harm me."  There was just no one left!

Almost all of the plants and products used in vegetable gardens were "organic" in the modern definition.  I'd like to say it was because it was the good old days and none of this toxic nasty stuff we use today had been invented yet, but it had been.  It just wasn't available because all chemical and factory production had turned to the war effort.  Nothing else was asimportant.  It was because of this that people started making their own compost out of vegetable scraps, lawn clippings, and all the manure they could shovel up from the local farms, stables, or the backyard chicken coop.  You got seeds the old fashioned way, by collecting them from seed-heads and swapping with other people.  Excellent pesticide was made from soaking cigarettes in a bucket of water and spraying the resulting liquor on your plants.  Got a little fungus?  Two spoonfuls of milk in a gallon of water did the trick.  Good and bad techniques spread by word of mouth and experimentation.  Soybeans made their first appearances on tables across America.  Awards and prizes were given out on the basis of beauty, functionality and thrift, and the resulting boom in backyard gardens yielded not only better nutrition for civilians but also freed up tons of food for the starving masses in Europe and soldiers fighting all over the world.

Of course, if you were lucky enough to have a bumper crop, you couldn't eat all of it yourself, and after all that work you couldn't possibly let any of it go to waste, so you dusted off grandma's old canning jars and got to work.  Women who had never thought of themselves as canners now had rows of jewel-toned beets, carrots, and tomatoes for the lean times, and they were delicious.  Nothing tastes as good as something you grow yourself.  And you could dress up that tiny seven-point pot roast with your own potatoes, carrots and turnips that would make your guests feel honored.

The Victory Garden Today
Gone are the days where you got together with your neighbors to make a garden, swap seeds, can together or have a meal, and I don't know if they'll ever come back.  But the garden lessons learned then were so important, so accessible to the individual and so pertinent today that I think they should make a return right now. 

First and foremost, Victory Gardening is Organic Gardening.

I can understand why synthetic poisons and fertilizers came to be such big sellers.  They are terribly efficient and certainly produce huge crops and corresponding profits, but their results are what I call "For Now" results:  They do the job cheaply "for now" but the results are temporary and a replacement will need to be had sometime in the future, at greater expense, so the cost doubles in the long run.

Fertilizers:  The expense isn't just monetary anymore.  With synthetic products, what the plant doesn't use right away just washes out of the soil.  Think of yourself spraying fertilizer into the garden.  No one ever follows the directions so you're probably using too much anyway, and all that extra fertilizer drains away into the water table.  Now think of your neighbor doing the same thing on his side of the fence.  Now neighbors on both sides.  Now most of the people in your neighborhood.  Your county.  Your state.  The country.  It adds up to a ridiculous amount of unnecessary product in your water, which means more expense to filter it out later before the water is safe for you to drink.

With organic fertilizers, you are not only recycling what would otherwise turn into useless garbage, but also protecting the water table, fish and wildlife that depend on clean water--not to mention your own health and the lives of your progeny.  If that isn't reason enough to make you reach for that box of slightly more expensive organic fertilizer instead of the usual cheap synthetic the next time you visit the nursery, I don't know what is.

Composting:  If you're squirming with disgust at the thought of adding animal offal to your garden, you can get around it by making your own compost bin and throwing in all your non-fatty kitchen scraps, yard waste, limp vegetables and thinned-out seedlings.  Before you go to any expense making a compost bin, check with your local Department of Sanitation.  In many cities, a compost bin will be provided to you FREE OF CHARGE!  If not, you can make one yourself or buy several reasonable varieties via the internet.  I'm sure there are people out there ready to tell you that one is better than another, but the most important thing is that you get one and use it. 

Insect Control:  Pesticides are also something that you might not need.  There are two basic types of pests: Sucking and Chewing. 

The sucking ones usually travel in bazillions, like aphids and whiteflies, and swamp your plants.  These are easily smothered with applications of soapy water, gardening oils, or sometimes just a blast of water.  Chewing insects are a much bigger pain and you'll almost never see them, but your plants will look like they're full of buckshot.  These are harder to get rid of, but BT (bacillus thuringiensis) powder, tobacco juice, garlic juice, milky spore, diatomaceous earth or predatory insects will eventually do the trick.  I like predatory insects best of all, even though it's a slow battle and not always a complete annihilation.  Still, it gives me great pleasure to know that there is something out there terrorizing the critters that have plagued me.

Seeds:  Heirloom seeds and organic seeds are not the same thing, although if you're lucky you can find seeds that fall under both categories at once.  Organic seeds were created under organic conditions regarding soil, fertilizer and pesticides, but they can still be modern, hybrid seeds that don't reseed true to type, meaning that seeds from your tomato will NOT produce new plants that are anything like the original.  They'll be too slimy, or the skins will be too thick, or they won't have flavor, or worst of all, they'll be sterile and not make any tomatoes at all.  Heirloom seeds will give you generations of duplicate plants with the same flavor and quality, making them the better value in the long run.  Heirloom seeds and plants are available through many through dozens of companies, and the selection is amazing.  If you don't want to stop at the 1940’s, there are seeds that go back hundreds of years.  If not a Victory Garden,plant a Colonial Garden, a Napoleonic Garden, a Biblical Garden.

Sharing:  Share the seeds and plants.  Not only will you have happy neighbors and friends who want to make their own Victory Gardens, but you'll be saving paper and plastic used for packaging, as well as electricity for processing and gas for transport. 
Share the spoils of your Victory Garden by cooking for your friends and maybe inviting a neighbor or coworker over for the dinner party.  Nobody talks over the garden gate anymore, so perhaps this will start a great friendship with the people next door.  Do the real wartime thing and make it a potluck, but instead of paper cups and plates use your best china and silverware.  Learn to can something, even if it's just a little.  You don't really need to have fifteen pounds of cucumbers to make pickles, but equal weights of berries and sugar make a great jam, and tomatoes can be preserved three or four to a jar.  When you crack them open again months down the line and taste how sweet and fresh they are, you'll know grandma was on to something.  And a little pot of homemade jam with a cloth cover and a name tag makes a great Thank You or last minute gift.  Recipes can be found online, but your best bet is to buy or borrow a copy of the Ball Blue Book from the library and follow the directions exactly.  Your first batch won't be your last.  The more food you can produce yourself, the less you have to worry about contamination scares you read about in the newspapers.  The things you grow in your own garden also taste better, have more nutrition and cost less than anything you will ever find at the store. 

Plant a tree and find out how apples are SUPPOSED to taste.  Plant sweet herbs and grow your own tea.  Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow a bush tomato or lettuces in a pot, peas in a hanging basket, or carrots in a window-box.  Is the roof available?  Is there a community garden nearby where you can rent space?  Do you know of a friend's house with a bare patch of yard?  Any lawns you wouldn't mind taking over?  Well then!  Put on those old overalls, put your hair up in a red bandanna and get to it!  Grow your own!  Can Your Own!  Waste Not!  Victory Depends on YOU!