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Gardening Columns

A New Generation of Victory Gardens

First published on on March 12, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

During tough times generations of Americans have turned to food gardening as a way to help feed their families, and our country's current economic downturn is no exception. A recent poll projects a 20 percent rise in the number of households growing vegetables this year over last. In addition to putting food on the table, could this renewed interest in growing one's own food spark a sense of empowerment and community pride, as it did during the "victory garden" era of the 1940s?

Americans planted victory gardens during World War II as a way to support the war effort. By growing produce to feed themselves and their communities, these home gardeners allowed the nation to divert more of the national food and fuel supplies to the troops. People felt personal pride in the labor they contributed, and the food they grew helped offset the privations caused by war. Some 20 million Americans answered the call of "Plant More in '44." Altogether, they produced about 40 percent of the vegetables consumed nationally that year. The victory garden concept changed gardening from a practical pastime to a civic duty and patriotic gesture.

Sixty-five years later Americans are again struggling to make ends meet, and food gardening is experiencing a revival. This time around the reasons have less to do with patriotism and more to do with saving money and promoting self-sufficiency. However, what started as a simple trend appears to be growing into a full-fledged movement as activists try to rekindle the fervor for home food gardening as a means not only to harvesting edibles but also to building community and increasing environmental awareness. There's even a campaign afoot to convince President Obama to dig up part of the White House lawn and restore the victory garden planted in 1943 by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It may be time to dust off the victory garden moniker and use it once again to unite and inspire gardeners.

Most young Americans are a few generations removed from their gardening and farming roots. After WWII, many families abandoned food gardening to pursue leisure activities. Suburban landscapes became seas of manicured lawns punctuated by a few ornamentals. If someone grew vegetables, it was likely in a corner of the backyard. This suburban lawn paradigm even resulted in some homeowners' associations forbidding food gardening by residents. In just a few short decades food gardening went from patriotic to prohibited!

Now the tides are turning again, and a new generation is eager to grow food. According to recent polls conducted by the National Gardening Association, two million more households grew vegetables in 2008 than in 2007, and results suggest there will be a 20 percent increase in vegetable gardening this year over last year. Those of us who've watched interest in food gardening decline can rejoice in its revival. Perhaps the silver lining of this economic recession will be that it inspires a new generation of gardeners. 

Although Americans returning to gardening to put vegetables on the table, it's unlikely we'll see the zeal -- and productivity -- of the WWII victory garden era. However, even a small home garden can help offset rising food prices and empower people to provide for themselves and their families during these tough economic times. And if calling these revitalized plantings "victory gardens" inspires participation and camaraderie among neighbors, so much the better. We'll need a new slogan, though. How about "Homegrown is Fine in 2009?"



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