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Victory gardens: a model for a more sustainable food future

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Since Britain’s Prince Charles came to town this month to talk up the vital need for more sustainable food systems, another event pressed the message home for me: exploding watermelons.

In China, the land of lethal milk, toxic pet food and tainted honey, we now have cucurbits that have spontaneously detonated after farmers sprayed them with a growth hormone. Read the label, guys!

The industrialization of agriculture is one thing; the globalization of it is something else. The closer I am to the source of the veggies I eat, the better I feel about myself and the planet. The most satisfying food on my plate is the carrot or pea that I knew as a seed. In my garden, I’ve been harvesting fattening heads of lettuce this month along with great quantities of kale, all grown with a small investment of money — a few dollars for seed — and the delightful duty of raising these plants. I’ve just put in some tomatoes I started in March and sowed some parsnip seed for a fall harvest. The beans and cucumbers will be close behind. The cycle spins merrily.

I don’t mention this to be smug (well, perhaps a little) but to reinforce what Prince Charles was exhorting at Georgetown University at the Future of Food conference, organized by Washington Post Live. His message, shared by a whole modern movement, is that our system of industrial agriculture is ultimately bad for our planet, if not our bodies. The conference speakers and panelists want to see a shift to organically grown food that is raised far closer to market. For them, this invariably comes down to a much larger network of small, local and regional farms and cooperatives supplying supermarkets and consumers directly through farm stands, farmers markets and community-supported agriculture cooperatives.

What seems to be flying under almost everyone’s radar is the difference millions of home vegetable gardens could make. This is a missed opportunity. If there were some almighty crisis that imperiled our food supply — exploding watermelons? — many of us have the potential, at least, to sustain much of our needs. The model exists in the victory garden that emerged in World War I and reached its zenith in World War II, when vegetables grown by homeowners and other amateurs supplied 40 percent of the nation’s needs.

Many of these 20 million gardens took the form of community gardens on vacant city land or at highly visible sites such as the White House or New York City mansions. Apart from the two-year-old vegetable garden at the White House, many of these urban farms and community gardens have either survived or are being reinvented in our time in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. One of the conference speakers, Will Allen, has established successful inner-city farms in Milwaukee as a national model.

As laudable as these programs are, the movement needs to tap into every cross section of society, not least the suburban gardener. “It doesn’t seem like the suburban homeowner is being included in this,” said Laura Lawson, author of “City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America.” Victory gardens were successful because everyone was in it together, and the movement was something positive in the face of a crisis. The current debate, she says, “is not joyous, it’s reactionary.” Lawson chairs the landscape architecture department at Rutgers University.

In terms of the home victory garden, an exemplar persists in a fascinating wartime instructional film by Uncle Sam, which can be seen at www.archive.org/details/
victory_garden
. Here the Holder family somewhere in northern Maryland (real or fictional, we wonder?) is shown creating a quarter-acre victory garden.

On several levels the film is sorely dated; on others it is not, offering valid and honest practical advice. If such a victory garden were planted today, it would be smaller, the soil would be mulched, with more compost and fewer and safer pesticides. We’d have more productive varieties, perhaps more trellising and a greater emphasis on fresh multi-seasonal veggies and less on canning.

I’d like to think we would still have as much teenage gusto to keep it humming along, though obviously there were aspects of gardening then, as now, that were burdensome. Indeed, soon after the war ended, most victory gardens quickly vanished.

This may not have been due to sloth as much as a new patriotic imperative. “The whole focus of the country turns to consumption,” said Amy Bentley, author of “Eating for Victory.” “Automobiles, houses, appliances. That whole ethos is directly contradictory to the previous ethos of saving and doing it yourself.”

And the gardening, when it occurred, wasn’t always the Catoctin cornucopia captured in the propaganda film. A lot of folks tried it but failed, especially in urban areas where the farming touch was already lost. But generally it worked, in part because there was food rationing and because people realized they could make a difference. “It was successful because it was needed, but it was also a concrete, visceral way to contribute to the war effort that wasn’t just sacrificing,” said Bentley, who is also an associate professor of food studies at New York University.

I think there will come a time when we will need victory gardens on every block, in a post-industrial, post-global planet, when advancement is measured in localizing our world, not expanding it. It will be medieval, in the best sense, but with law and order and antibiotics.

I think we are already moving toward that place. People such as Rosalind Creasy are showing us that fruit and vegetable gardens can be beautiful while making a statement. The lawn as landscape icon was a declaration that you didn’t have to farm anymore. Perhaps we can replace it with a front-yard veggie garden that declares the age of the lawn over. What a proclamation that would be for thrift, self-sufficiency, horticultural skill, concern for the environment and the world we pass on.

Prince Charles said the other day that “we have to put nature back at the heart of the equation.” I think we should put every gardener at the center of it, too.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter for updates on gardening and other cosmic events.

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