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The Quad: Victory gardens can be a way to grow food, sense of purpose during quarantine

Victory gardens represented an effort to encourage Americans to grow their own vegetables to aid the nation’s food supply and be more self-sufficient during WWI and WWII. (Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin)

By Kayleigh Ruller

April 24, 2020 3:07 p.m.

Face-masked and strapped with sanitizer, I couldn’t find fresh tomatoes and basil on the lonely shelves of my nearest grocery store.

Then, I remembered that I had a few tomato seeds waiting to be planted at home. In fact, I remembered I had a whole backyard, and, well, a lot of time to try to grow my own produce.

Turns out, I’m not the first person to have this idea. In a period that feels uncertain, we can gain some insight by looking at the past. For example, how did folks cope with lockdown and lack of supplies during wartime at other points in history? One way was through the practice of victory gardening.

James Bassett, a lecturer from UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said that victory gardens, often known as “liberty gardens,” were an effort to encourage Americans to grow their own vegetables to aid the nation’s food supply throughout WWI and WWII.

In the March to June gardening season, leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, chard, root veggies and hardy herbs, like thyme and sage are a popular choice among growers. (Courtesy of Matt Sheridan)
In the March to June gardening season, leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, chard, root veggies and hardy herbs, like thyme and sage, are popular choices among growers. (Courtesy of Matt Sheridan)

By the mid-1940s in the United States, roughly 20 million victory gardens were established as a result of the redirection of food and transportation to the war effort as well as a national push to increase self-sufficiency.

The gardens produced about 40% of the produce consumed in-country, Bassett explained.

“(Victory gardens) empowered people to take charge of their food supply instead of being entirely dependent on a food system that was beyond their control,” Bassett said.

Thanks to instructional leaflets distributed nationwide, citizens were taught how to rely on their own ability to grow food. A plethora of published victory garden pamphlets such as “Garden for Victory,” “The Victory Garden Guide” and “The Victory Garden Leader’s Handbook” can still be found in online internet archives. These guides and promotions, encouraging civilians to “Sow the seeds of victory” were accessible and well-received by both city-dwellers and rural communities, allowing those on the homefront to relish in the reward of producing their own food while simultaneously feeding troops overseas.

The above pamphlets’ instructions remain relatively the same today. In general, though, starting small seems to be a universal “best” answer to how to grow your victory garden.

 

Victory gardens can come in many forms, though a backyard with some extra space is ideal for a larger garden, such as a raised 8' by 4 bed. (Courtesy of Matt Sheridan)
Victory gardens can come in many forms, though a backyard with some extra space is ideal for a larger garden, such as a raised 8-by-4-foot bed.
(Courtesy of Matt Sheridan)

To start constructing your own victory garden, the must-haves include nutrient-rich soil, sunlight and water.

Since we are currently in the March to June growing season, a lot of gardeners recommend growing leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, chard, root veggies and hardy herbs, such as thyme and sage. Many of these plants can be bought at a local gardening store, hardware store or grocery store.

As we move into summer, traditional fall produce, such as potatoes and squash, grow best with more space and time than that of other seasons. If these big vegetables seem a little too daunting to start off with, one option is to begin growing herbs like cilantro, rosemary and parsley or vegetables like peas and onions in containers.

According to calculations from Seedlings Gardening, the total price to start an 8-by-4-foot vegetable garden your first season is $115. All of the following seasons average around $54. Of course, this varies from garden to garden based on how you choose to customize it. Compare these figures to the average yearly spending of $259 on produce in 2016-2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For those who don’t have a lot of space, gardening is still accessible. Even in a cramped Westwood apartment, you can still grow herbs, sprouts and lettuce in a windowsill pot.

Gardening during COVID-19 quarantine measures does not require a large backyard in order to grow a handful of vegetables and herbs. Many can grow in small pots placed in areas of sunlight (Elise Tsai/Daily Bruin)
Gardening during COVID-19 quarantine measures does not require a large backyard in order to grow a handful of vegetables and herbs. Many can grow in small pots placed in areas of sunlight. (Elise Tsai/Daily Bruin)

Of course, gardens can’t replace some of the convenience items found in stores. Starting your victory garden today might not stop you from going to the grocery store tomorrow, but it can save you money and time in two weeks, two months or whenever your first produce ripens. Plus, there is a real satisfaction in harvesting the first budding strawberry or sprig of vibrant basil and in taking back power over your food, even if it’s imperfect.

Now might be just the time to consider learning something new, especially a practice that can help to make folks less reliant on some of the technologies and institutions we have come to depend on. According to Bassett, with the increase in convenient technology and reliance on supply chains, many Americans have lost a sense of self-reliance.

Not only can growing your own produce decrease your reliance on grocery stores, but it can also provide communities with tools of resilience.

In his TED Talk “A guerrilla gardener in South LA,” Ron Finley of LA Green Grounds said his gardens have become avenues for education and transformation within his community. This re-skilling that Bassett points to can be seen in the education initiatives and community programs surrounding gardening, such as The Edible Schoolyard Project or LAGG’S Teaching Garden in Los Angeles.

Finley told the TED audience that gardening is the most defiant act one can do, particularly in historically underserved communities such as South Central LA. Gardening can demonstrate agency and resilience, as well as a reclaiming of power over food, according to Bassett.

Tierney Sheehan, a fourth-year communication student minoring in food studies, said the COVID-19 pandemic exposes a lack of resilience in our food landscapes and a lack of information regarding growing your own food.

“Information (about) … learning to work with the land isn’t as readily available,” Sheehan said. “It’s not integrated into popular culture.”

Around 20 million victory gardens were established in the United States in the mid-1940s in order to allow for resources to be directed toward war effort. (Sakshi Joglekar/Daily Bruin)
Around 20 million victory gardens were established in the United States by the mid-1940s in order to allow for resources to be directed toward the war effort. (Sakshi Joglekar/Daily Bruin)

To shift toward a place where gardening is more integral to our lives is to begin in our homes with a simple rule: Grow what you like to eat.

“Gardening is the simplest solution that addresses everything,” Sheehan said, referencing gardening’s overarching cross-cultural and cross-class accessibility. “It creates equity. … It’s not an elitist trend.”

Maybe one way to advocate for ourselves and for a struggling nation is by growing our own vegetables. In doing this, we take working with our land a step further, by integrating and normalizing it into our social culture and creating a community built upon a foundation of health and sharing, Sheehan said.

While so much has changed in the last 100 years, some of the most important things have stayed the same, Bassett said. The pleasure of satiating food and a sense of communal togetherness as you garden alongside your neighbors surmounts time and is still very much alive 100 years later.

“Just give gardening a try,” Bassett said. “The scale isn’t important. Start small and, well, grow from there.”

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Kayleigh Ruller
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