Back before the Industrial Revolution when the Great Pirates decided they needed us to go indoors and mass produce things for them to sell back to us, hardly anyone needed to be reminded to garden—certainly not those who weren’t wealthy, and the wealthy would simply make someone else do the weeding. One of the first laws enacted in the Jamestown Settlement in 1639 was that everyone who had over 100 acres must plant orchards and gardens and fence them in.
Gardening was just how you ate, and knowing the basics was Adulting 101. Botany was a hugely important science; major players like Washington and Jefferson claimed that cultivation was their absolute favorite pastime. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener,” wrote Jefferson
In the southern United States in particular, the landed gentry infamously forced people with darker skin to do the work, an approach doomed to failure. Poorer folks, though, homesteaders, and artisans, and tradespersons, had the sense to keep their fingers in the soil; any home that had the space probably had a kitchen garden.
During Europe’s Victorian era, US families with money cultivated lawns and formal flower gardens and built summer houses and gazebos, partly as signifiers of their wealth, partly because gazebos and flowers are fun. Artists such as Newburgh-born Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederick Law Olmstead, and Calvert Vaux developed the art and science of grooming public spaces that provided nourishment to the psyche. In 1900, Harvard University established the first landscape architecture program.
In 1902, a New York City school board member named Fannie Griscom Parsons, daughter of a public health professional and a strong advocate of horticulture (Fannie belonged to the National Plant, Flower, and Fruit Guild) raised the funds and collective energy to turn DeWitt Clinton Park, then a Hell’s Kitchen trash pile, into the Children’s School Farm. Young students were assigned four by eight foot micro-plots and taught to cultivate corn, beets, carrots, peas, lettuce, radishes, and onions—the idea being that civic virtue would grow in the hearts of the children as the crops grew in the ground. It was a hit, lasting in that location until 1931 and launching a school gardening movement; by 1906, there were over 7,500 school gardens in the US.
Onward to Vegetable Victory
World War I devastated the global food supply chain. “Hunger stalked the civilian populations of all the combatant nations,” writes historian Paul Cornish. “Agriculture and food distribution suffered from strains imposed by the war and naval blockades reduced food imports. Reduced agricultural output forced up prices and encouraged hoarding. Governments responded by putting price controls on staple foodstuffs. Food queues formed of women and children became a common sight in cities across Europe.”
The US and Canada revved up agricultural production to feed France, Britain, and Russia; commodity prices soared and farm values tripled. When an armistice finally came, the North American farmers who’d helped stave off famine found themselves twisting in the fickle winds of deflation, drought, and eventually depression.
With much of the commercially grown food supply, not to mention the strong young folks who might have helped produce it, being siphoned off to the front lines, President Woodrow Wilson formed the US Food Administration and appointed Herbert Hoover to run it. Part of the agency’s mission was encouraging Americans to plant “war gardens, in backyards and parks and churchyards.” The National War Garden Commission encouraged citizens to “sow the seeds of victory” with a massive propaganda and educational campaign.
The citizens responded. In 1917 and 1918, over 8.2 million new garden plots were planted, and the government began promoting canning and food preservation as the next logical step. Through the War Gardens effort (rechristened Victory Gardens by commission head Charles Pack) the United States was able to avoid food rationing.
During the Great Depression, many families avoided starvation thanks to their garden plot. The “relief garden” movement implemented by city governments was intended not just to feed hungry mouths, but to keep people active and productive, and enjoyed enormous public support despite squabbles over who should garden, where, how much and on what terms. (In Detroit’s Thrift Gardens, experienced gardeners wore ties and business attire to sit and supervise the actual labor being done by the needy, who were reckoned in greater need of moral improvement.)
In the first few years of the New Deal, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration funded “work gardens,” which the unemployed were paid to cultivate, shifting the vibe of the relief garden movement even farther from volunteerism and collective well-being. A collaboration between the Works Progress Administration and the New York City Welfare Department established 5,000 gardens in vacant lots which produced five dollars worth of food for every dollar invested.
Not everyone approved of all this gardening going on; agricultural interests argued that government-subsidized gardening was prolonging the Depression by worsening food overproduction. By 1935, government funding dried up and gardens, so recently seen as patriotic, began to be called “welfare gardens;” having a garden was a sign that you were admitting defeat in the wider economic battleground, even a sign of laziness.
Whoops! Better not toss that hoe on the trash heap just yet, Uncle Marv. Your lazy tail is about to be recruited into yet another patriotic effort. By spring of 1942, the fruits and veggies had once again been marched off to the front lines, along with some six million farm laborers, and food rationing became necessary. Though some argued that mass production was the wise way to feed a hungry nation and that the government shouldn’t encourage gardening this time around, wiser heads prevailed; gardening, they said, was good for people’s health in more ways than one. By 1944, 40% of the veggies being produced in the US came from the 18-20 million Victory Gardens planted by families.
In the post-war era, the anti-gardening forces once again ratcheted up their sneaky campaign of influence. They could hardly come right out and say, “Pave those gardens, serfs! We need you to rely on us again so we can sell you inferior products at greater expense.” They could, and did, promote the concept that a velvet green lawn was the proper accompaniment for a suburban family, and that we were living in a brave new world of convenience and store-bought produce.
Many families, of course, had established gardening traditions going back generations and could care less whether gardening was “fashionable” or not. It was enjoyable, the results were tasty and healthy, and the insanity of paying attention to whether the powers that be approved or disapproved was clear. Those mass-produced supply chains would work just fine…until they didn’t.
With the eco-conscious, small-is-beautiful mindset that emerged in the late 1960s, gardening was embedded in the national consciousness to stay. Oh, many had been lulled into complacency, consuming the chemical-laden produce from faraway fields—but many others, wanting satisfaction, fun, and flavor, kept a garden as part of their world. The encouragement of Victory Gardening, utilitarian as the impulse behind it may have been, had served to keep a culture of cultivation alive and kicking. Many a hippie deployed the gardening wisdom learned helping Grandma in getting the homestead plot started.
Our current situation, in which Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has said he sees no problem with small family farmers withering on the vine (“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” he said in September of 2019, echoing a sentiment expressed by Nixon’s ag secretary in the early 1970s) and with brittle supply chains tangling and snapping every which way, we need our gardens as much as, perhaps more than, ever before. Formerly comfortable suburbanites have been lining up in their cars at socially-distanced food banks.
For all its problems, the world has gotten better at feeding the world—at least the developed part. Since 1970, population has doubled while food supply has tripled, and food insecurity has dropped by over a third, from 36% to 11%.
But the logistics of pandemic present a whole fresh crop of problems, as unemployed people lose the purchasing power to feed themselves well. The UN says that acute food shortages, which currently impact 1.7% of the global population, may soon double.
Unlike so many global issues, this is one you can do something about: if you haven’t already planted your own garden, consider it, even if you start with a few pots of cherry tomatoes beside the porch. Raised beds, which are easy to make, decrease weeding, keep the soil loose and easier to work and give your efforts a tidy, this-person-has-a-clue feeling. There’s a wealth of gardening wisdom to be had for free, right here in these very pages and in the greater Hudson Valley. And there’s a whole lot to be said for a supply chain that starts 20 feet from your own back door. The flavor of a fresh picked green bean or tomato still warm from the sun? Being able to drop off extra zucchini at the food bank for those unable to grow? Those are victories in anybody’s language.