New York Times reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis, describing the recent spike in demand for seeds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only altered our relationship with grocery shopping and restaurants—it’s also coincided with the start of spring planting season. In a time when the grocery store feels like an epicenter of potential virus exposure, many people are taking up gardening—continuing a long history of Americans turning to the earth in times of crisis. “Victory gardens” during both World Wars were likely the beginning of this trend, but horticulture also rose in popularity during the Great Depression, after 9/11, and after the 2008 financial crisis. As you consider starting your own “recovery garden,” we thought we’d take a look back at victory gardens of the past.
Even before the United States had entered World War I, international food insecurity threatened the war effort, and the American people responded with agricultural movements to combat it. In March of 1917, Charles Lathrop Pack organized the National War Garden Commission to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort by planting, fertilizing, harvesting and storing their own fruits and vegetables so more food could be exported to the allies. The campaign was spread by word of mouth as well as posters. Women’s clubs, civic associations, and chambers of commerce all actively encouraged citizens to participate in the campaign to create their own war gardens. The effort was so successful that the government started the U.S. School Garden Army (USSGA) through the federal Bureau of Education to encourage children to enlist as “soldiers of the soil.”
Following the example of the British, American women organized the Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA) in December of 1917 in which young women would be trained to work in agriculture to fill the void of men called off to battle. The WLAA enrolled girls in training schools to provide them with sufficient agricultural training for working on large commercial farms. Barnard College was a key institution in preparing students for farming responsibilities as well as creating the WLAA itself, and was joined in its efforts by institutions such as Vassar, Mount Holyoke and Bryn Mawr colleges. Programs were offered by these institutions at a price, limiting their availability to middle- and upper-class women, although working class women often aided during the harvesting season. Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of women’s suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was appointed Director of the WLAA, giving the organization strong ties to the suffrage movement. Historians estimate between 15,000 to 20,000 participated in the WLAA during World War I. Although the program ceased at the war’s end, these “farmettes,” as they were called, are a strong example of American women stepping up in times of need and providing for their country.
During the World War II—as commercial crops were being sent to the military overseas—citizens were once again encouraged to create victory gardens. The Women’s National Farm and Garden Association, along with prominent figures like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, encouraged the revival of the WLAA as early as May 1940. Roosevelt herself even planted a victory garden on the White House lawn. Pamphlets and photographs showed women and children tending to the garden, encouraging even novices that “abundant yields were possible for any aspiring gardener.” Women, as well as migrant workers, were once again asked to fill the void of male agricultural workers called to the war. While the exact number of American women that joined agricultural efforts is unclear, estimates suggest that about 5 million women picked up gardening tools and got to work, many of whom lacked prior agriculture experience. The wartime victory garden campaigns boosted morale, provided a way to demonstrate patriotism, and safeguarded families and communities against food insecurities. In 1944, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced 8 million pounds of produce, amounting to 40 percent of the produce consumed in the US.
There’s something unique about gardening: It fosters a skill, provides an outlet for enjoying the outdoors, and leads to healthful eating—all while social-distancing. Picking up on these historical themes, the Center for Women’s History encourages you to begin your own “recovery garden,” our new version of a victory garden. Avoiding extra trips to the grocery store increases your home’s self-sufficiency, allows for less interpersonal contact, decreases your carbon footprint, and enables a healthier diet. Whether you’re tending a window box in a New York City apartment, or have been able to escape the city, there are ways for everyone to get involved and provide yourself with a rewarding and simultaneously calming way to “sow the seeds of recovery.”
Here are some recommendations for planters that can be made out of household items:
- Leftover cardboard boxes
- Wood Crate
- Egg cartons (great for seed starting)
- Glass jars
- Tin cans
- Shoe organizers
- Wooden boxes
There are also many food that can grow from kitchen food scraps:
- Scallions, onions, garlic, and leeks
- Many lettuces or cabbages, such as romaine or bok choy
- Herbs like basil or cilantro
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
Many plants can be grown indoors if you lack access to a backyard, or are in an area with limited sunlight:
- Herbs like oregano, rosemary, and thyme
Happy gardening, and we hope you all are staying safe and finding ways to stay occupied!
Written by Maeve Hogan, Columbia University Center for American Studies Intern, Center for Women’s History, N-YHS