The American victory garden movement was a direct result of government rationing of foodstuffs and other materials needed to support military troops during World War II. By 1943, victory gardens numbered in the millions, providing approximately a third of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the country. From Eleanor Roosevelt's garden on the White House grounds to vacant city lots, backyards and community baseball fields, plots of land were devoted to growing food to feed American families at home, freeing commercial growers and processors to redirect resources to the war effort. The major impetus behind planting a victory garden was to feed the gardener's family with a wide range of fruits and vegetables--the goal for today's victory gardeners as well.
Victory gardens contained a range of edible foods. The gardens included a balance of leafy, root and fruiting vegetables. The goal was to provide something to eat throughout the entire garden-growing season. Wartime rationing included not just food but also gasoline and tires, which meant that produce grown far away could not always be transported to markets. Victory garden vegetables and fruits provided variety in the dietetic monotony caused by rationing. These foods could be served raw, cooked simply (butter and other ingredients for rich sauces were also rationed), and in the days before nationwide distribution of frozen foods, canned for future use.
Victory Garden Vegetables
In the 1940s, vegetable seeds were available in fewer varieties than today. W. Atlee Burpee, stimulated by a seed blight preceding the World War I and the need for countries to fall back on their own resources, spent pre-war years developing durable, American-hybrid vegetables, among them lima beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. Seeds available to war-time gardeners included: pole beans, beets, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, collards, kohlrabi, kale, eggplant, parsnips, peas, peppers, squash, lettuce, tomatoes, chard and turnips. Sweets included pumpkin and watermelon. Recent immigrants added their favorites from the "old country." Absent from victory gardens were vegetables that are difficult to grow, like celery, broccoli and spinach. Potatoes and onions remained the province of commercial growers or experienced gardeners, by and large.
Victory Garden Fruit
Rationing stimulated the growing of fruit in victory gardens with space. Most popular were those durable enough to "put up" with home-canning (apple trees were treasured) and those sweet enough to be consumed with little or no rationed sugar. Sugar was reserved for baking and batches of homemade jelly or jam, which made berry-growing popular. Families learned to cultivate strawberries and save odd bits of land for the rambling canes of blackberry and raspberry bushes. Even rhubarb and currants, tart though they were, could be turned into much-craved sweets.
Victory Garden Results
Two million American victory gardens produced between 1/3 and 1/2 of the fresh produce grown in the country during wartime. Wessell's Living History Farm notes a five-fold increase in the purchase of pressure-cookers, needed for canning, in 1942. The effectiveness of this government-sponsored program is also noted with its cessation in 1946, when return to a prewar economy was impeded by food shortages. (Grocery stores and commercial producers could not shift gears fast enough to compensate for discontinued gardens.)
Historians suggest other outcomes from the victory garden program. Low rates of pilferage and vandalism suggest the strength of community patriotism and cooperation. Large numbers of American learned gardening skills, reinforcing the postwar dream of a house with its own yard as the archetypal American family residence. Some note that gardening changed its focus to growing flowers, but gardening remained a popular American hobby.