Victory Garden Historian: “There’s a gardening revolution going on right now!”



If Rose Hayden-Smith sees a big enough surge in gardening to call it a revolution, I’m going with it.  She’s a historian specializing in food policy and the U.S. “homefront” era and I had the pleasure of hearing her talk about victory garden history at the U.S. Botanic Garden.  She and the other Food and Society Fellows were in DC for a food policy conference, and counted visiting Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden as a highlight (sadly, no photos allowed!)  Here’s her report (“It’s all a blur!”)

Turns out we don’t know much about the history of Victory Gardens, usually confusing World Wars I and II (I know, ancient history).  Tidbits I love:  President Wilson declared: “Food will win the war.”  Herbert Hoover, as President Wilson’s “food administrator”, encouraged local food production and consumption to reduce food miles (that being a much-used term even back then).   Victory Garden posters used slogans like “Uncle Sam says Garden,” “School Garden Army,” “A Garden for Every Child” and “Exempt No Land”.

But my take-away was the breadth and depth of government action promoting the home growing of food, which resulted in 40% percent of American production being homegrown.  Every community had a “foodshed coordinator” who worked to make sure
the right types of food were planted, all coordinated in a big-picture
way.  By 1943 there was a national program for school, home, workplace
AND community gardens, and three-fifths of all Americans grew edibles. Wow.

So why did Americans stop growing food, Rose?  The highway system, technological improvements, advertising, and the federal lunch program.  Gardening came to be perceived as a “hick thing to do.”  We bought into the culture of lawn-and-ornamentals.  (Rose said it’s great to see “lawns becoming out” – we Rosehaydensmithhear ya.)

So what’s the evidence of this “gardening revolution” Rose declared? Encouraging survey results, of course, plus the impact of our First Lady and her team.  But Rose also met with folks at the USDA while she was in town and left convinced that next year the feds will implement a “national gardening initiative”, something she’s campaigning for.  And just last week the USDA launched their “Know your farmer, know your food” campaign.  (Awesome government website!)

Here’s a great article by Rose about food policy that was recommended to readers by no less than Mark Bittman.

Victory Garden poster care of the Library of Congress.


  1. Interesting,,,,,

    Promoting gardening to save the earth works well these days.

    But what would the leftists say today if the push for gardening was to win a war?

    They would protest as usual I am sure. I can see such slogans as “No Tomatoes for Tehran”

    But since it fits their agenda of spewing global warming propaganda it’s ok………….

    Mind you I garden to get fresh food and relaxation and it is my livelihood as well.

    The TROLL

  2. I recently went to a conference here in Massachusetts where one of the presenters talked about a local Farm to School program that would make it possible for schools to buy local produce for their lunch programs. Who would have thought this was a controversial capability? It was also mentioned that some schools that do have their own gardens ignore the LAW that says school garden grown produce CANNOT be used in the school kitchen. I think it is well known that children love eating food they have grown themselves. When I visited my local elementary school and asked what happened to the produce from our school garden I was immediately shushed – and told their potatoes were being served for lunch. SHHHHHHH! I don’t have any trouble imagining the interests that came up with these laws, but now that we are aware of them and how foolish they are we can work to change them.

  3. The current interest in gardening is in spite of, not because of government interference. Keep the government out of our gardens, and everything will be fine.

  4. That’s pretty bad when a school has to sneak around and “break the law“ to be able to eat the vegetables that the students grew themselves but at the same time I can understand why there maybe a law about it. In this day and age law suits are every where some people will try to sue for the most stupidest of things maybe this is just an attempt to protect themselves from the “crazy” people. Unfortunately these are the ones who ruin it for the rest of us.

  5. Thanks for this. I’ve been trying to find out more about US Victory Gardens for contrast in a piece I’m preparing for my blog about the Allotment movement we have over here in the UK.

    You’ve given me a great head start 🙂

  6. It seems pretty reasonable to imagine that as people feel less control over their lives, they might want to grow their own food, or at least what they can. Its the fervor that makes some people uncomfortable; the swell that is overwhelming. Any individual who sees the rising tide coming might question whether they want to ride it or just run from it. Either way, it seems we have a swell of veg gardening activity. I think the interest in unconventional veg gardening spaces (rooftops, etc.) is a response to not having the resources for conventional growing, declining land ownership, etc. It helps that people feel like they are saving the planet while gaining some control over their life.

    But if it is a revolution, it certainly is a quiet one. I prefer not to use that term. I prefer something more like phase shift.

  7. Sadly, if the government tried such a movement today the farm lobby would shut them down in a heartbeat. I hope it doesn’t take another massive war to motivate people to bring food production closer to home.


    Sorry I couldn’t make it to Raleigh. Let’s get together soon!

  8. Right on Trey…………….

    But they have nothing better to do!

    The TROLL

    TREY BTW your mention of your blog a while back on hydroponics and GEN X&Y was right on. We got into hydroponics this April and it is growing every week

  9. The first thing I noticed was the poster and how half of it was taken up by sprinkler water.
    With a visual message like that , we here in the arid west are going to think twice about expending that amount of money, er I mean water in our gardens.
    Those who live in costly water districts are going to weigh the costs of growing their own vegetables vs. going to the farmers market .
    In my case, it is far more cost effective to purchase my produce at a farmers market than to grow it/ water it , in my own front yard.

  10. Right. Just what we need – more government intervention and bureaucracy to oversee and “coordinate” the activities of private citizens. Why are gardeners so insecure that we pine for the approval and support of the government? In my garden, I’m gonna plant what I want when I want to. To hell with anyone that trumpets anything including the words “government, “feds,” “implement,” “policy,” or “initiative.”

  11. I love that lawns are going out of fashion too! I think this gardening revolution is real, it’s happening, and I’m encouraging it here in Canada too. 🙂

    I don’t really care what kind of theory / politics are used to push gardening. I think it’s good for the people, for their health, for the animals, and for the environment. So let’s keep gardening. 🙂

  12. I enjoyed visiting, so much good info here.
    Maybe you will have an answer to my gardening question. In my garden, for some reason, I have a bunch of new strawberries growing. This is my first year growing them, and I did not expect to have ny at the end of September…but not only do I have flowers and berries, they are the most delicious of the year. Just very flavoful, maybe because the cold nights concentrate the sugars? I have no idea. But I am totally stoked with my strawberry garden!

    I live in Massachusetts, is it normal to have strawberries this late? Or is it because I had no established plants, and the baby plants matured later than normal?

  13. All this gardening politics is making me tired and nauseous I am beginning to feel as if I am not doing anything “right”. I really enjoy coming to this blog and reading up on the latest news but to be honest I am not sure where I fit in to all of this.

    I enjoy having a lawn (grass type area) and I really don’t want to rip all of it out just because the latest fad is veggies in the front yard and I am told if I don’t am not doing my part to feed the hungry and save the environment and possibly the world. I grow ornamentals…Ok.. I said it. I am tired of feeling guilty of not being politically green enough. In the future I do intend to have a compost pile I don’t have one at the moment not because I don’t want one I just haven’t gotten around to making one (I do have other things going on in my life to). There will be no chickens anytime soon in my backyard or any other livestock for that matter my husband will still have to use the lawnmower to cut down the grassy areas.

    I enjoy going out into my garden / yard and puttering around it makes me feel happy and takes away the stress of work but now I go out there and I see things that I am told I should either be doing differently or not at all. I do my best to not contaminate my little corner of this earth and try to always recycle but geez when will all of this gardening peer pressure ease up. I am not interested in joining any revolutions at this time. I just want to garden for my own selfish pleasure.

    Just my 2 cents this morning obviously I haven’t had enough coffee yet.

  14. Hi Susan,
    You know how to “dig up” those subjects that get the ranters buzzing!

    I’m going to give a “shout out” to this post on weekend on my live, online garden TV talk show, “Garden World Report with Shirley Bovshow.” It airs online, at my blog on Sunday’s at 5 PM PST from Los Angeles.

    WHy don’t you drop in the chat room and start a commotion there? Would love to hear from you Susan, if possible.
    Shirley Bovshow

  15. This is to Jo Ann:
    I hope you are enjoying your coffee in your garden.Gardeners dont usually display a “Herd Mentality”,the joy that comes from gardening is doing what you want,when you want on your little piece of heaven.There will always be Extremists,they can be found anywhere.I think we have become more educated about truly harmful things such as tons of chemical fertilizers dumped onto the ground in any given neighborhood,not just to artificially prop up lawns but also Ornamentals.So,enjoy your lawn,along with your flowers and whatever else you choose to grow.

  16. Good morning luise h,

    Thank you for your kind words after I posted that comment I expected either the “cold shoulder or a trowel to the eye”

    May I offer you a cup of coffee or a glass of ice tea?

    You have a great day and happy gardening.

Comments are closed.