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5 Lessons We Can Learn from World War II Victory Gardens

Men in suits walking behind two horses pulling a plow through a World War II public victory garden.
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

In unprecedented times, it often makes sense to look to history for relevant lessons. The “victory gardens” of World War II can offer some valuable inspiration in the age of COVID-19!

While social distancing, many people have turned to gardening to pass the time and brighten up their property. During WWII, though, victory gardens weren’t just recreational; they were necessary to supplement the food supply.

Here’s what the victory gardens of the past can teach us now, and how you can grow your own!

What Is a Victory Garden?

Although often associated with WWII, the victory garden idea really got going during World War I.

The battles on European soil during WWI seriously disrupted European food supplies. So, in the U.S., people were encouraged to grow their own food so U.S. crop exports could help feed people in Europe.

Gardening became part of the war effort, and they were referred to as “victory gardens” by the end of WWI. The idea persisted, and well into the 1920s, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) was still using Uncle Sam and wartime imagery to encourage people to garden at home.

A 1920's USDA ad encouraging people to garden at home.
USDA/Public Domain

However, WWII made the idea even more popular. Thanks to U.S. food rationing, which started in 1942, the need for a victory garden became even more pressing. Any outdoor space, from tiny patios to vacant lots, suddenly had garden potential. The government actually sponsored educational materials to help people grow more successful gardens.

Victory gardens gave many Americans a positive outlet during a trying time, in addition to helping relieve food shortages. These small home gardens actually produced about 40 percent of the nation’s fresh produce at the time!

Luckily, since the end of WWII, there’s been no need for victory gardens in the U.S. However, although we’ve avoided rationing and shortages, there are still some good reasons to start a victory garden during the current pandemic.

What Victory Gardens Can Teach Us

Plants and gardening have already surged in popularity since the COVID-19 outbreak, but a victory garden takes that trend a step further. Here are some of the benefits of growing your own!

Fewer Trips to the Store

During WWII, victory gardens reduced grocery shopping to help prevent a food crisis. Today, it can reduce grocery shopping to help prevent the spread of disease.

Grocery shopping nowadays feels weird at best, and scary at worst. With a home victory garden, you won’t have to venture out to buy food as much.

You Can Eat What You Love

People with a WWII victory garden were able to eat foods they loved, even if those foods weren’t available at the store. The same is true today!

Some foods, like beans, have become harder to find at grocery stores. If you grow them yourself, though, you’ll always have them, even if the shelves at your local shop are empty.

You’ll Reduce Your Food Budget

Starting a garden does require an initial financial investment. However, once you have your basic supplies, you’ll reduce your food budget over time by growing at home.

Even in normal times, who doesn’t like saving money? Given today’s financial worries, though, reducing the food budget can be even more important.

Food Preservation Is Still Valuable

Many people canned, pickled, or preserved the spoils of their victory gardens, so they’d have access to fruits and vegetables throughout the winter.

Your home garden might produce more of a certain item than you can use at once. This is a perfect opportunity to learn traditional food preservation techniques! Not only are they excellent quarantine hobbies, but they’ll also stretch your produce supply long past the growing season.

There Are Health Benefits

During WWII, gardening provided a healthy outlet for stress and worry. It helped people in the U.S. feel like they were doing their part to oppose the rise of fascism. It also gave them a sense of control in a world that often felt overwhelming.

Gardening today can be fun and soothing, and it might be just what you need to keep your pandemic-related worries at bay. It also offers a number of other benefits for your physical and mental wellbeing. From regular, light workouts, to reducing stress, your home garden can really improve your life!

How to Start a Victory Garden

A man planting a lettuce seedling in an outdoor garden.
Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

If you want to grow a coronavirus victory garden, here are some steps for success.

Find a Garden Space

As victory gardens proved, any small available bit of soil can become a growing space. Maybe you have rooftop access, a patio with room for a container garden, or an entire backyard to work with. You have to know the amount of space you have to work with before you can take the next steps.

If you’re really short on space at home, see if there are any community gardens in your area where you can start a plot.

Get Your Supplies

What you’ll need depends on the amount of space you have. For example, you’ll need appropriate containers and soil if you plan to grow a container garden.

Generally, though, you’ll almost always need the following items:

  • A watering can
  • Gardening gloves
  • A trowel
  • A hoe

Start with these essentials, and then get whatever else you need as you go. Remember, gardening is centuries old and doesn’t require fancy equipment, so don’t overcomplicate it!

Know Your Zone

Find out which USDA Plant Hardiness Zone you’re in, so you’ll know what to plant, and when. This information is key to knowing which plants can thrive in your area.

Pick Your Plants and Seeds

When you shop for plants and seeds, you’ll find the hardiness zones of each listed on the package or pot. Only buy what will work in your zone, so your garden can thrive.

In addition to zones, you can shop according to what you like to eat. You might also want to look for plants that are easy to grow if you’re new to gardening.

Keep in mind that it’s often easier to grow existing plants than to start from seeds. Also, seeds don’t last forever, so don’t buy more than you can realistically use.

Map Out Your Garden

You don’t want to put plants in your garden haphazardly. Instead, check out this guide to companion planting, so each plant is placed near others with which it can thrive. Look at your plants, seeds and garden space, and map out where you’ll put each plant.

Don’t forget to research the appropriate planting times and growing seasons, too. Each plant should be planted at a specific time for the best results. Seed packets and plant tags typically have information about when to plant, depending on your hardiness zone.

Plant and Maintain

Seed packets and plant tags will also tell you at what depth and distance you should plant. Use this information as you place your seeds or plants in your garden.

Once they’re in place, water your plants appropriately, depending on how often it rains. Most gardens can use a healthy watering every few days. Pull up weeds often, and watch your plants grow!

Manage Your Expectations

Keep in mind that your first “victory garden” might be more of a failure—and that’s okay. Many of the first victory gardens during WWII failed, as well.

Gardening is a skill, and like all skills, you’ll get better at it the more you practice! If your carrots don’t grow or your tomatoes all die, don’t get discouraged; it’s a learning process!

These basics will get you started on your own COVID-19 victory garden, but there’s lots more to learn about this satisfying, beneficial hobby!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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