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Bringing Back the Victory Garden

History of Victory Gardens

Americans accomplished truly amazing feats with their wartime gardens. Uncle Sam challenged Americans to self-sufficiency and growing vegetables, and this challenge was met and surpassed with great success. The idea was originally established by the Wilson administration during the first World War. Charles Lathrop Pack encouraged Americans to “keep it local” and “put all idle land to work.” The National War Garden Commission, established in 1917, reported an increase in the number of garden plots in the United States from 3.5 million in 1917 to more than 5.2 million in 1918. As war ravaged Europe, many European farmers went to war and their farmland became the battlefield. While Americans were feeding themselves with victory gardens, American farmers could supply food to the Allied powers.

When the United States entered the second World War, Americans took up their shovels and returned to gardening. The War Food Administration restarted efforts to encourage gardening with the National Victory Garden Program established by US Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard. Americans were encouraged to garden to reduce the demand on the commercial vegetable supplies, reduce strategic materials used in food processing and canning, reduce use of railroads to transport produce, preserve fruits and vegetables, and maintain the vitality and morale of Americans at home. Around 40 percent of fresh vegetables consumed were grown at home. The United States Department of Agriculture send out pamphlets on how, when and where to sow, which crops to plant and provided information on preventing detrimental insects and diseases. The first lady herself, Eleanor Roosevelt, had a garden right on the White House front lawn.

Local level committees were formed to help beginning gardeners succeed. These committees helped distribute excess produce and established tool sharing systems. During WWII, even garden tools and shovels were limited due to the war effort. Gardeners were encouraged to plant a variety of different crops for fresh use and storage and were encouraged to use techniques, like succession planting, to extend their harvest. Recordkeeping also was encouraged to ensure success in later planted gardens. Gardens formed everywhere including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Portland Zoo in Oregon and Boston’s Copley Square and Fenway Park.

Creating Your Own Victory Garden

Selecting Crops

The varieties and different types of vegetables available today can be overwhelming. If you’re new to gardening, start with the crops you like to eat and those that grow well in West Virginia. The same crops recommended by the USDA during WWI and WWII can be planted today. Easy starter crops include bush beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, summer squash and lettuce. These crops mature quickly and suffer from few pests and diseases.

Before planting, think about a typical grocery list in your household. Which vegetables are included on that list? Use a grocery list to determine which crops should have a place in the garden. Consider eliminating crops that are difficult to grow or require a large amount of space.

Gardeners in WWI and WWII were encouraged to plant nutrition-packed vegetables. Some vegetables in this category include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes, spinach and other dark leafy greens.

Selecting Varieties

Not all varieties of vegetables are created equal. Seed packets often contain valuable information, including the best use of that crop. Vegetables have been bred for many different purposes.

Varieties labelled “hybrid” or “F1” have been bred with specific traits and qualities, including disease resistance or superior flavor. Hybrid varieties produce a more uniform crop compared to many heirloom varieties. Hybrid crops are the result of crossing two different varieties. The seeds from these crops will not grow a new plant that is true to type. New seed must be purchased each year.  

An “heirloom” or “open-pollinated” variety is one that has been saved and passed down through generations. Heirlooms from West Virginia may be better adapted to local growing conditions.

Crop varieties should be selected according to garden goals. If you would like to preserve tomatoes in salsa and pasta sauce, choose a processing tomato like Amish Paste or San Marzano. Large, slicer heirloom tomatoes are best for fresh eating. Varieties can also be selected according to the season. Cultivars labelled “cold tolerant” are best for spring and late summer planting. Check out WVU Extension Service’s annual Garden Calendar for more cultivar suggestions.

Vegetable Varieties for Fresh Eating, Storage and Preservation

Crop

Fresh Eating

Storage Cultivar

Preservation Cultivars

Beans

Bronco, Caprice, Jade II, Crockett, Boone

Any drying beans

Most beans are suited for canning and freezing

Beets

Red Ace, Pacemaker III, Touchstone Gold, Kestrel, Chioggia

Lutz Winterkeeper

Cylindra, Red Atlas, Red Titan

Cabbage

Bronco, Bravo, Cheers

Storage No. 4

Danish Ballhead, Late Flat Head, Premium Late Dutch (for sauerkraut)

Carrots

Hercules, Mokum, Sugarsnax 54

Bolero, Nectar

Danvers 126, Hercules, YaYa, Scarlet Nantes (processing/dicing)

Cucumbers

Dasher II, Marketmore 76, Sweet Slice, Excelsior

Cool Breeze, Little Leaf, Bush Pickle, Calypso, National Pickling

Potatoes

Salem, Chieftain, Lehigh, Russian Banana, Purple Majesty

Thick-skinned varieties, Russets, Sierra, Superior

Onions

Candy, Candy Apple, Red Bull, Copra, Red Wing, Beltsville

Copra, Sweet Sandwich, Red Zeppelin, Stuttgarter

Purplette, Gold Coin, White Bermuda, Pearl Drop (all pickling varieties)

Peas

Knight, Frosty, Cascadia, Sugar Ann

Daybreak, Spring, Sparkle (good for freezing)

Peppers

Red Knight, Revolution, Achimedes, Paladin

Cubanelle, Hungarian, Yellow Wax, Sweet Cherry, Sweet Banana

Tomatoes

Big Beef, Celebrity, Mortgage Lifter

Garden Peach, Long Keeper Winter Storage

Amish Paste, Roma, San Marzano, Super Italian

Winter Squash

Acorn, Spaghetti, Delicata

Buttercup, Kabocha, Butternut

Peek-a-boo, Sugar Treat, Dickinson Fields Buckskin (for pie filling)


Keep Records

Victory gardeners were encouraged to write down all the details of their gardens. Journaling about your garden is a great way to remember everything you’ve learned in the garden over the past year. Notes can be taken on regular notebook paper or written on a blank calendar. Including dates helps prepare you for events in the following year. Many dedicated garden journals can be found in local bookstores.

Record daily occurrences in your garden. Start with your planting dates, be sure to include vegetable type and cultivar. Weather events can be useful when tracking pests and diseases. Include bloom times for perennial flowers and the arrival of birds and butterflies. Keep track of management practices for pests and diseases and the result of any action taken. Journals are a great way to keep track of which crops work especially well in your garden. Review these notes while planning next year’s garden.

Ask for Help

Victory garden efforts of the past were organized by local committees. These committees introduced beginning gardeners to experienced gardeners, so everyone was more successful. The number of online gardening resources is endless, but sometimes it helps to have someone talk you through the process. Contact your local WVU Extension Service office if you need a list of gardening resources or just want to ask for advice. We can help connect local resources to ensure our victory gardens are successful.

References:

Herrmann, M.M. (2015). The Modern Day “Victory Garden.” Procedia Engineering 118, 647-653. Doi: 10.1016/j.proeng.2015.08.498

Hill, M., & Kendall, P. (2016, February 24). Making Pickled Peppers at Home - 9.314. Retrieved July 02, 2020, from https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/making-pickled-peppers-at-home-9-314/

Tomato. (n.d.) Retrieved July 02, 2020, from https://web.extension.illinois.edu/veggies/tomato.cfm

Treiber, L. (2018, October 3). Preserving pumpkin safely. Retrieved June 30, 2020 from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/preserving_pumpkin_safely


Candace DeLong – WVU Extension Service Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent – Hampshire County