What History's Urban Vegetable Gardens Teach Us About Survival - OZY | A Modern Media Company

What History's Urban Vegetable Gardens Teach Us About Survival

What History's Urban Vegetable Gardens Teach Us About Survival

By Fiona Zublin

In times of national crisis, there is often an emphasis on gardening both practical and philosophical.
SourceHulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty


Turning to gardening in a crisis didn’t start with COVID-19.

By Fiona Zublin

In 1917, the United States government — concerned about wartime famine and a relatively recent mass migration to cities that had diminished the importance of rural life — issued a call to youth to become “soldiers of the soil.”

Millions of children are thought to have participated in the U.S. School Garden Army (USSGA), which melded a curriculum of practical gardening know-how with a philosophy that equated patriotism with farming, even in cramped urban spaces.

The effort, whose motto was “A garden for every child, every child in a garden,” was funded by the War Department and operated like a military unit until Armistice Day in 1918. The USSGA was just the first of many official programs exhorting American citizens to grow food in times of crisis.

When things get crazy and out of hand and you have no sense of control, [gardening] is an amazingly interactive and physical thing.

Laura J. Lawson, Rutgers University

The 1940s and World War II brought so-called victory gardens to individual backyards as well as to large public spaces like New York City’s Bryant Park. At the height of their popularity, the gardens helped offset the food shortages caused not only by the war but also by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps during the war. Many of them were farmers — often particularly productive ones responsible for a large proportion of crops like tomatoes and sugar beets.

Without those 6,100 West Coast farms — which were markedly less productive once the land was taken over by inexperienced farmers — food shortages became an even larger threat, and the victory garden program was an attempted corrective. The Roosevelt White House had a vegetable garden (revived by Michelle Obama in 2009), and an estimated 20 million gardens sprouted across the U.S., producing, according to official materials, about 40 percent of the produce consumed in the country in 1943. Eleanor Roosevelt’s garden “was a statement to the nation that it was the patriotic duty of every person, from the first lady to the lady next door, to plant and cultivate for victory,” writes Cecilia Gowdy-Wygant in Cultivating Victory, a history of the victory gardening movement.


Children working in a World War II victory garden in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood.

Source Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty

In times of national crisis, there is often an emphasis on gardening both practical and philosophical. “Gardening is something really tangible that people can do,” explains Laura J. Lawson, a professor of landscape architecture at Rutgers University and author of City Bountiful, a history of community gardening. “When things get crazy and out of hand and you have no sense of control, it’s an amazingly interactive and physical thing; it’s a thing you can see benefit from almost immediately.” While both World Wars invested in official gardening programs to boost food production across the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, Lawson says that economic downturns like the Great Depression and the type of urban unrest that took hold in the 1970s and ’80s have also been accompanied by a turn to gardening and community agriculture. So-called relief gardens, for instance, took root during the Great Depression — there were 5,000 in New York City alone — providing both jobs and sustenance for desperate people.

The current COVID-19 crisis is no different. Seed companies have reported sales spikes across the U.S. as people, fearing that food supply chains will fray, wonder just how much food they can grow themselves — not enough, Lawson estimates — and experiment with backyard raised beds and balcony herb gardens. In recent days, articles have proliferated on how to stock your pantry and how to grow the tomatoes some worry they soon won’t be able to buy. While it’s unlikely that amateur gardens will be efficient enough to replace grocery stores, such efforts add value by connecting consumers to their local food systems, encouraging patronage of nearby farms and other producers and generally making meals a more neighborly pursuit.

Victory gardening wasn’t just about food or patriotism — it was a community activity in which gardening clubs and schools offered hands-on instruction on how to grow things. But today, for people enduring quarantine and starved for time outdoors and human companionship, the words “community garden” may sound like an impossible luxury. Next to that, the nutritional value of the small potatoes that individuals may be able to grow seem like, well, small potatoes.

And with the flower industry wilting in the face of the current crisis — with graduations and weddings canceled, businesses stand to lose millions of dollars — you may soon need to grow your own blossoms. Even during wartime, flowers weren’t dismissed as frivolous but rather encouraged — they could be sent to military hospitals or used to brighten the nation’s mood.

Though the timing of the coronavirus may seem particularly cruel to anyone watching the weather turn sunny and warm through a window, spring is a particularly pleasant time to experiment with seeds and plants, waiting for sprouts to push their way through the soil. “It’s a little less therapeutic maybe in August when the weeds come in,” Lawson jokes. “But for now it’s hopeful and optimistic.”

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