Not very long ago (in terms of the human experience), the majority of us were intimately connected with our food sources. Even the urban-dwellers in post-industrial America typically had a section of their property dedicated to growing edibles. Any extra bounty could be exchanged with neighbors in barter or canned for enjoying during the winter.
However, by the time of the First World War, many gardens had become neglected or converted into lawns, especially outside of the traditionally agricultural communities. Wartime rationing would change that and the idea of Victory Gardens spread throughout allied nations as a direct means to help the War Effort.
Victory Gardens were essentially a return to what had been taken for granted as recently as one-generation prior: semi-self-sufficiency in regards to fruit and vegetable production. These gardens helped to fill larders with healthy, local food in a time of national crises.
Sadly, after World War II drew to a close, western society entered into an era of progress-driven myopia. Gardening and self-sufficiency seemed quaint in the day and age of centralization of mass production, the rise of the mono-crop culture, and refrigeration.
The vast Illinois prairie was turned nearly exclusively to corn and wheat production, with more and more soybeans grown every year until the miraculous legume outstripped wheat plantings hands down, and finally came to rival corn.
A new America had taken shape. Suburbs with manicured lawns, and supermarkets with rows of goods, and a produce section offering apples every month of the year.
Mostly in rural areas, home canning stubbornly persisted. People in these locales had been hard-hit by bad economic times in the past, and didn’t seem as keen to forget about them as their urban counterparts. Mothers passed traditions down to daughters, and gardens were tilled faithfully every spring.
Growing up in the 1980s in rural central Illinois, nearly everyone had a grandparent with a garden and a home-canner, but, alas, few had parents who were continuing the tradition. Gardens, if planted at all, contained a few tomato plants and maybe a green pepper or zucchini. Vegetables that weren’t used were typically left to rot on the vine.
Progress. Subdivisions gave way to entire prairie bedroom communities complete with their own subdivisions. Acre after acre of prime Illinois farmland became paved and sodded, and home size and price grew exponentially.
A new century dawned. Faced with tasteless tomatoes, rotting fruit, and e coli in their spinach, the populace — both urban and rural — turned their attentions back to local food. Farmer’s markets are booming in popularity and numbers — as are community gardens and other community-supported agriculture initiatives. More importantly, increasing numbers of city lawns are giving up grass for more useful plantings.
After moving into a town home with a fenced-in yard this summer, I quickly dug up a small patch of turf (with permission, of course), and planted the tomato, pepper, and basil plants that had clung to life in pots on our porch for the early portion of the season. All three plants sprang to life, but the tomato became the best achiever; ripening the handful of green fruits it had been sporting for weeks and quickly growing more.
While still removing sod one spade-full at a time, and manually tilling the small patch of ground with a garden hoe, I formed plans in my mind for next-year’s patch. I envisioned heirloom varieties of tomatoes, as well as peppers, squash, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, and cabbage. And that was before I even glanced at a seed catalog.
It will take careful planning and no small amount of self-education, but next spring I will be working in the dirt of my own Victory Garden. While the United States is not rationing for the War on Terror, this isn’t for any sort of military War Effort but for a more personal victory. Every vegetable that I grow myself, every can that is produced from the garden for next winter, is a step towards self-sufficiency and a healthier, tastier, dinner table offering.