WWII Victory gardens from the 1940s: How people planted them, and how you can grow your own even now

Victory gardens How they planted them and what they grew during WWII

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During World War II, there was a push to get citizens to ease the nation’s burden by growing as much of their own food as possible.

As the editors of House & Garden magazine wrote in 1942, “This year, the grim necessities of war focus the gardener’s attention on the production of food. Vegetable growing again will become a popular hobby.”

Toward the beginning of the United States’ entry into the conflict, these home-grown foods were produced in “Defense gardens.”

By 1943, however — and through the rest of the war — they had been given a new name with a more positive spin: “Victory gardens.”

Here you will find details about the plants they grew, and how — which includes advice that would even be helpful to today’s home gardener.

For better Victory Gardens in 1944

Victory gardens: How they planted them & what they grew during WWII

Defense Gardens: What does a defense garden defend? (1942)

By Richardson Wright, Editor, House & Garden

This spring, thousands of Americans will be planting “defense gardens.” In a previous conflict, they were called “war gardens,” but by whatever name we call them, it will be the same — we will be raising more vegetables, enjoying more vegetables, canning more vegetables — because whether we dig for defense or for warfare, we dig for victory.

Many of those who dig and sow defense gardens this spring will recall those war gardens of twenty-odd years ago. Perhaps they will also remember the reasons why they made them, remember the slogans, the propaganda, the community and national urging that impelled them to plant more and preserve more.

Germain's Seeds and Plants catalog from 1944

Into the present emergency has been introduced a whole set of new reasons. Before you order seed or put spade to soil, consider, then, what you are defending. The Government’s attitude toward this necessary endeavor is particularly interesting.

Recently House & Garden sent one of its representatives to confer with a leading official of the Department of Agriculture.

“No hysteria, please,” was his opening remark.

In the first World War, hysterical vegetable gardening caused a great waste of valuable seed. Because several nations from which some of this seed came during the previous war are now enslaved, and because there is some shortage in our own seed crop due to unfavorable weather, we are not to waste seed. Calculate your needs carefully, and sow to meet them.

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1940s Victory Gardens - An opportunity to aid in defense

Meantime, however — the Government is still speaking — keep improving your grounds with trees and shrubs and flowers. Grow your own vegetables, can the surplus, become self-sufficient as to food — well and good — but don’t abandon growing and flowering beauty.

For besides the hunger of the body, there is a “hidden hunger.” The body may adjust itself to short rations, but morale can never be sustained unless the “hidden hunger” lurking in all of us is satisfied.

In the light of this official attitude, what are we defending? How do our vegetable rows contribute to national safety and the preservation of those democratic ideals to which we are so solemnly vowed?

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The easy transportation of fresh fruit and vegetables to all parts of the country, which has arisen within our own generation, employs a vast quantity of rolling stock.

Those cars and locomotives may be needed for the moving of war materials and food to our troops. We plant to save transportation.

Plan for next winter - Can and preserve foods - 1944

We sow carefully, not merely to prevent waste of vegetable seed, but also because our allies are desperately short of several kinds of seed: we will be drawing from our store for them as the seasons pass.

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We raise our own vegetables so that the Government may pile up surpluses with which to feed our allies, and also against that day when, please God, come peace, it will be our duty to feed the starving peoples of Europe, friend and foe alike.

“Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

Magnolia Seed Victory Garden catalog from 1943

These are fairly obvious reasons for making defense gardens, and these were the same we heard during the last war.

In the evolution and travail of our race over the past twenty years, certain other reasons and necessities for laboring to make the earth bring forth its increase have arisen.

Health is one, national health. The number of rejections from the drafted army on account of physical weaknesses should come as a blow to our pride.

Seed catalog from 1944 - Little kid growing vegetables

Have we, supposedly the most civilized nation in the world, grown so soft, so greedy for creature comforts that muscles are flabby and wishbones preferred to backbones? Men and women who hoe their vegetable rows know the way to health. Unless you have health how can you defend anything?

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WE WHO work with the land will also have a chance to correct some of the evils perpetrated against it by our careless forefathers.

Today, the nation is facing a grim penalty of floods, soil erosion, dust bowls, topsoil washed downstream or blown away due to the wasteful farming methods of previous generations of Americans.

It is a bitter heritage from those who abused the land, who robbed it and then moved on. Each man in his garden, whether his acres be few or many, can adopt intelligent methods of soil cultivation so that the waters descend into the earth instead of rolling off it.

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On the small place, this may merely require cover crops, on the larger, strip planting and contour plowing.

Whatever land you have, learn to cultivate it with an eye to restoring its capacities for lasting fertility and preventing its destruction by the elements. Defense of health is necessary, defense of the land is a national duty.

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But what of the “hidden hungers” of which that Government agent spoke? It is easy enough to say this can be satisfied by the delight of the eye in flowering beauty — in the uncurling of a rose, the noble form of a well-kept tree, the fatness of land in hearty tilth.

Growing flowers in World War II victory gardens

Among thinking people, is a more urgent hunger — the hunger for whatever “new order” will come after this war. It is to be hoped that we will be spared the extravaganza of the ’20s. It is certain that life will not go on “as usual.”

There is certain to come a more equitable distribution of this world’s goods and opportunities. There is certain to come the preservation of our natural resources as the wealth of all the people.

In that day, lucky is the man who can work with his hands; who, having respect for the soil, will cultivate it with loving care and understanding.

Perhaps in the end, what we defend most in defense gardens is our dream for a better world.

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WWII Victory gardens - Steckler Seed Co 1940s

The land and our survival

By Richardson Wright, Editor, House & Garden

Through the present Victory Garden Campaign, we may learn responsibilities that will decide our nation’s future

PERHAPS the wisest advice the Department of Agriculture issued, among its various suggestions for the Victory Garden Campaign, was that lawns and flower beds should not be destroyed to make space for potato patches and vegetable rows.

Gardens such as the charming, colorful spot on Long Island, pictured [below], are to be preserved and maintained at all costs.

Beautiful Long Island Victory Garden

The serenity of close-cropped grass, the succeeding flowers in borders, the nobility of sheltering trees — these should survive. As the weeks roll on through this grim War of Survival, people everywhere in the United States will have to decide what in their lives is necessary for survival, what worthy of preservation.

Behind our wars and economic systems lies organic nature on which we must depend for life.

“The common problem of all mankind,” says a recent writer, “is that it will soon perish unless it devotes its enhanced powers to the respectful culture of the earth. . . . We cannot go on subduing the earth unless we are allowing it to be replenished.”

We have not realized our dependence on the land. Let emergencies arise, such as the one now upon us, and we expect it to furnish a quick recovery from our most pressing calamities.

Victory Vegetable gardens - Vitamins 1944

That is the blind faith so many patriotic gardeners are clinging to today. They are sure the land won’t let them down, forgetting how many times they themselves and generations before them have let down the land.

Let us say, then, that the first tangible gift necessary to our survival is the land. The reality of dust bowls may awaken us to the grim fact that if we pursue our present wasting and neglect of the land, it is possible for us — we of the abundant and far-flung United States — to face starvation.

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Now the value of the land to us lies in what springs from it. Plowing under the sod land of Oklahoma eventually produced the dust howl that set a whole race of Okies wandering about the country. Generations of faithful, tireless tillage will be required to replenish the fertility in what is now a desert.

A piece of sod and a sky-reaching tree may seem worlds apart, but each is a product of the land. And to each we have been giving much cavalier treatment. So aggressively have we exploited and robbed them that their judgment will inevitably be upon us.

Victory gardens - Raise your own vegetables

Due to the requirements of war, great forests are being cut down in many parts of the country. Between 1931 and 1940 the forest industries of the western states from Washington to New Mexico logged 120 billion board feet of timber. This was enough to build 2,800,000 homes, 120,000 schools and libraries, 35,000 churches and 25,000 factories.

In 1940 and 1941, the army alone took 2-1/2 billion, and in 1942 will take almost 2 billion, board feet. The navy took 450 million, and this year will use 250 million more; and the end is not yet.

What is being done to replant those forests? In Washington and Oregon, a determined effort is being made to plant trees as trees are cut down. Timber is being treated as a crop to be sown, grown well and harvested when ready for use.

How to start your Victory Garden successfully - 1944

This cannot be said of all parts of the country, however. So great is the greed and so appalling the neglect that the day may soon come when the States will have to force reforestation as part of the public control of privately owned timberlands.

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THE great Russian philosopher Solovyev once wrote that unless we respect what is below us, it will become our master. If it is exploited, it soon reminds us that we are its dependents.

Responsibility to the land and the green growing things that spring from it — trees and all sorts of vegetation — is our first necessity for physical survival.

This respect for what is below us is the philosophy implicit in the present Victory Garden Campaign to grow as much of our own food as possible.

Victory vegetable collection - seed and garden catalog from 1943

But food alone is not enough to keep us alive. In choosing survival, we must also realize the actuality of man as a spiritual being and revalue those things that minister to his spirit.

Food for the body’s health, growing beauty for the health of that which is internal, intangible and designed to serve divine purposes. These two are linked and closely interdependent.

Man cannot divorce his natural tasks from his supernatural end. That beauty which assures his spirit’s sustenance may take many forms — it may be found by some in sculpture and in painting, by others in the creation and enjoyment of the printed word, by still others in the stimulation and exaltation of music; not the least of the beauty is revealed by the physical cultivation of the soil.

1941 gardening catalog - Zinnias

Only a man who with his own hands has turned the dun earth, sown the seed, nurtured the uprising plant and brought it to ultimate fruition will know what ministering angels can companion him in the process, what revelations swing out from the illimitable for his beholding, what complete nearness he is capable of feeling to that which was and is and is to come.

And if we do survive, let us learn the lesson so grimly taught us by our present-day necessities. Let us not, come peace, drop this effort to produce bodily and spiritual food, considering it merely an emergency measure.

We can never go back to the old ways. This which we have learned must be the way of life henceforth. We cannot know freedom or enjoy it unless we have faith in the land and take our part in laboring to defend it.

Victory Garden guide (1943)

IT IS the patriotic duty of every family that can do so, to grow as much as possible of its own food this fear. At the same time, national leaders urge that flowers shall also be grown, while lawns and landscape plantings shall not be sacrificed.

If you have a suitable place in your home grounds, set aside a Victory Garden plot; if not, apply to your local Victory Garden Committee for space in a community garden.

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Vintage Victory Garden guide - WWII era - 1940s

Wherever you plant, your Victory Garden should be planned carefully to accomplish these things:

1. To supply the family diet with an abundance of vitamins, to protect you from malnutrition.

2. To produce the food you need, in well-balanced profusion, but without waste.

3. To supply your table continuously through summer and fall.

Data given on this page, in three tables, will help you plan for all these purposes. To plan production, estimate the number of times a vegetable should be served to your family during the period for which you wish to provide.

Be guided by your family’s taste, but not too far. Remember that malnutrition is the penalty for bad habits in diet; more vegetables must be eaten if your family has been eating too few.

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