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Is it time to grow a Victory Garden?

Posted 2/20/2009

By Leslie Allen, horticulture coordinator UNCE

In this era of war and economic hardship, it is crucial for Americans to lend a helping hand wherever they can. At the beginning of the year, President Obama asked all of us to recapture the spirit of previous wartime generations by working hard, saving money and conserving resources. This is a great time to revive the Victory Garden.

Growing a Victory Garden was a common American wartime practice. It was considered a national duty to grow food for your family and community. Indeed, our government had a War Garden Department that vigorously supported the cultivation of home and community Victory Gardens. By some estimates, Victory Gardens provided 40 percent of the nation’s food supply. In 1943, more than 20 million Americans were growing Victory Gardens in their front and back yards, on rooftops and in vacant lots. Even our wartime presidents grew Victory Gardens. Woodrow Wilson grazed sheep on the lawn rather than mowing it during World War I. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn during World War II.

Victory Gardens galvanized the nation and gave everyone a common purpose. They brought people together over the back fence or community plot. People shared the abundance, learned self sufficiency, gained independence and had pride in their community.

The benefits of Victory Gardens are equally evident in these times. Some agricultural scholars say our current food system is not sustainable because it requires too much energy. It takes an average of 10 fossil-fuel calories to produce one calorie of food energy. About a quarter of America’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to how we grow, process, and transport food. On average, our food travels 1,500 miles before it reaches our plates. These food miles equate to a lot of fossil-fuel energy. Growing a Victory Garden will reduce the miles your food travels; in fact, if you grow your own your food, the distance it travels might be just a few steps.

Growing your own Victory Garden will also insulate you from food cost fluctuations. If money is tight, growing your own food will provide your family with tasty, nutritious food for a fraction of the cost. Also, growing your own Victory Garden can be a healthy family-bonding activity. You and your family can pick produce and cook meals together. If you are particularly thrifty, you can try preserving some of your garden’s abundance. Food preservation was another common wartime practice.

To get your Victory Garden started, you need to do a little planning. Look to areas of your landscape - the front, back or side yards — that get at least six to eight hours of sunlight. For most folks, the best place for a Victory Garden will be the south-facing side of their property, although a west-facing side can work well to.

Once you’ve identified the area where you’ll plant your Victory Garden, you should decide whether you want to plant directly into the soil or build a raised bed. Raised beds can provide better drainage than urban soil, and a tall raised bed can allow seated access to the garden. This will assist people who are wheelchair-bound and people who have trouble bending over. Raised beds can dry out quickly, and may require more frequent irrigation. If you want to plant directly into your soil, make sure you amend the soil with plenty of compost. Nevada’s soils are rather lean and need help to grow herbs and vegetables.

Deciding how you’re going to irrigate your garden is an important decision. Drip irrigation is an efficient choice for Victory Gardens. You can water by hand if you prefer, but most folks tend to overwater with this method. Drip irrigation can save you money and time.

After you’ve decided where you’ll build your Victory Garden, you need to decide what to grow. Think about what types of food your family likes to eat, and grow those kinds of fruits, herbs and vegetables. We are lucky here in Northern Nevada that we can grow a large variety of produce. If you need help deciding what to grow, you can always call us at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. We can help you decide what varieties to grow and when to plant them.

Planting a Victory Garden is a true American pastime that is as relevant today as it was decades ago. In this modern wartime, we have the additional battles of a weak economy and a planet in peril. Isn’t it comforting to know that the simple act of growing a Victory Garden can help solve many of our modern problems?

Eat the View

A modern presidential Victory Garden is high on the agenda of many Americans who are concerned about energy use and the rising obesity rate. Lots of folks are urging President Obama to lead by example and replant a Victory Garden on the White House lawn.

This national movement is led by Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse; Michael Pollan, professor and author of "The Omnivore’s Dilemma;" and Kitchen Gardeners International, a Maine-based nonprofit group of 10,000 organic gardeners.

Kitchen Gardeners International has launched the "Eat the View" campaign and Web site at www.eattheview.org. There you can read about the agricultural and horticultural history of the White House.

Did you know that the land was a former tobacco plantation? John Adams was the first president to plant a vegetable garden. Thomas Jefferson expanded the garden and planted an orchard.

Unfortunately, these gardens were destroyed when the west wing of the White House was constructed. It wasn’t until World War II, when Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden, that the White House lawn would again grow food. While her Victory Garden was removed, the spirit of food production did not dwindle. Jimmy Carter planted herbs amongst the flowering perennials and Hillary Clinton planted tomatoes and herbs on the rooftop.

While all of these efforts are commendable, advocates of a White House Victory Garden are seeking something more than a few herbs and tomatoes. They are looking to the first family to set an example of healthy living and self-reliance. Karen Washington, an urban farmer and community activist from New York says it best:

"As we welcome our new president into the White House, President Obama’s message of change is evident. We the people want to change our way towards a healthier and greener environment. We as gardeners and farmers would like the opportunity to help transform the White House lawn into an edible garden. Our message is clear: To grow your own food gives you a sense of power and it gives people dignity. You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family and your community."

For more information on the history of Victory Gardens, check out this University of Nevada Cooperative Extension slide show or call UNCE at (775)784-7070.

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