Food & Water featured

Victory gardens

January 21, 2024

Imagine Hollywood celebrities campaigning for backyard gardens, and America’s best-selling music stars singing songs about patriotic recycling. It may sound crazy, but that actually happened eighty years ago. As the USA entered World War II, much of the food industry focused on the war effort. Farmhands were needed at the front, machinery for planes, and people needed to do more for themselves. A grass-roots movement spread across both countries to create “victory gardens,” and the idea was picked up by celebrities, politicians and the media.

Similarly, In Great Britain, 60 percent of food was imported when World War II began, and most of that food now had to be grown locally – and everyone pitched in. Radio programmes, magazines and movie newsreels showed families how to save grease for machinery and bones for fertiliser, how to turn their yards and neighbourhood vacant lots into gardens into an allotment garden. They explained how to clamp potatoes under mounds of hay to keep them for the winter, and how to save energy when cooking food by setting stews in hay-stuffed boxes to slow-cook.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the victory gardens worked. They allowed most people to grow their own food, and spend less money. They put to work the precious space that is now being used simply as lawns or landscaping features. In a time when energy was scarce, they allowed more trucking and food to be used for the war effort. They ensured that millions of people became self-sufficient, and were insulated from the chaos of energy shortages and supply chain disorder. In the event of a crisis, every gardener makes your neighbourhood more secure. The gardens meant that people spent less money – the less money you need to spend on food, the more you can put away for paying the mortgage or eliminating the credit card debt. They created more beautiful neighbourhoods, gave people exercise, and brought communities together.

Victory gardens meant that citizens ate better food as  well – fresher than can be bought at any store, with the maximum nutrition and no chemicals. A now-forgotten 1977 Congressional panel observed that heart attacks and strokes went down in the war years, even with the stresses of war and a demographic shift toward the elderly, because of more fresh vegetables in their diet.

Such gardens also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which are currently used to plough fields, make fertilizers, create pesticides, harvest, process crops and transport them to market. Gardens eliminate all those steps at once, reducing a 10,000-kilometre diet to a 10-metre one. While Ireland never entered into World War II, the same thing was done here – council estates gave families as much land as a cow needed, and it was once common, I’m told, to see cows, pigs and chickens in many yards in Dublin. Even schools and hospitals had their own gardens to feed those inside.

Writer and former Soviet citizen Dmitri Orlov wrote that most Russians had kitchen gardens, and that 90 percent of the country’s food was grown in such plots. Even though they were formed from necessity, because of the poverty of the nation and the incompetence of centralized agriculture, they ended up being a blessing – as the nation collapsed, the people could still eat. He warns that many nations in the West are now heading for a crisis, but are not as well prepared.

Could we feed ourselves again? We have in the past, and with less knowledge and technology than we have now. Australian ecologist David Holmgren has estimated that his country’s cities could not only feed their own population, but become net food exporters, if the yards and golf courses were replaced by everything from leeks to cardoons to turnips. Presumably the same could be done in similar cities in Europe and America.

Some people are doing this now – still a small group, but in an emergency they could be the ones who teach others, as a similarly small fraction of the population could teach others when World War II began. Within only two years, though, Americans were growing almost half their own food. It could happen again, and if the next few years were to bring another fuel crisis, or a civil war, or an economic crash, or any number of other possibilities, every backyard could be an ark that could carry people through the storm.

Brian Kaller

Former newspaper editor Brian Kaller wrote his first magazine cover story on peak oil in 2004, and since then has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic, Big Questions Online and Low-Tech Magazine. In 2005 he and his family moved to rural Ireland, where he speaks to schools and churches, and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper.  

Tags: gardens, victory gardens