~ St. Catharines' Wartime Neighbourhoods

Victory Gardens

During the Second World War and for a few years thereafter, a common sight in many urban areas was the “Victory Garden” which the government of Canada encouraged civilians to plant. These were also called “War Gardens” or “Food Gardens for Defence.”  However, this was not a new concept that was developed during the 1940s. Its roots go somewhat further back.

As long ago as March 1917, the concept of a “War Garden” had been proposed in the United States by Charles Lathrop Pack who had organized the National War Garden Commission. His idea, simply stated, was that if civilians cultivated small gardens on their own land, on rooftops, or in public parks, it would increase the availability of foodstuffs without placing additional stress on the land and manpower already engaged in agricultural production. These gardens were also promoted as morale boosters, since each household could take pride in the knowledge that they had contributed to the war effort through their labour on the home front. Moreover, the food produced in backyard gardens ensured a constant supply of fresh and nutritious fruits, vegetables and herbs for the table and for canning. As a result, families would have less reliance on items such as canned goods which often rationed. Some home gardeners were also encouraged to raise chickens in backyard coops, which provided fresh eggs.

The idea of Victory Gardens quickly caught on in popularity in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States. There was some Victory Gardening carried out in war-torn Europe where food production was depleted due to a shortage of labour and devastated farms. It was estimated that between 1917 and 1919, over five million Victory Gardens had been planted in North America, which had produced some $1.2 billion in foodstuff production.

During the Second World War, the planting of Victory Gardens was encouraged by the Canadian government.  Early attempts to foster home growing were nearly quashed by nervous government officials who worried that novice gardeners might fail and consequently waste scarce fertilizer, soil, tools and water. Emily Schofield and Elizabeth MacKenzie disagreed, and they wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, J.G. Gardiner urging “every citizen to endeavour to grow more vegetables in order to make an appreciable difference in the situation that confronts us,” and claiming this war effort to be “of primary importance.” Finally, the Canadian federal government threw their support behind these community gardens in the growing season of 1943.

Booklets were published by the Ministry of Agriculture with step-by-step instructions on the care and cultivation of gardens. This propaganda literature noted that the increased production of food at home would help to reduce the price of produce required by the military. These savings could then be used on the purchase of arms and other equipment necessary for the war effort.

By the end of 1943, there were more than 200 000 victory gardens in Canada, producing about 550lb of produce each!

During the war, the United States instituted a poster campaign with slogans such as “Plant More in ’44,” and even the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, planted a Victory Garden on the grounds of the White House. In the United States, there were as many as 20 million Victory Gardens which contributed about 40% towards the domestic consumption of fruits and vegetables. In The United Kingdom, a similar poster campaign urged civilians to “Dig for Victory.”

Today, the basic concepts behind “Victory Gardening” are one again experiencing a resurgence in popularity although for entirely different reasons. With a growing concern over the environment, more and more people are becoming aware of a sustainable local food culture. “Slow food” is becoming a popular catch phrase, and community gardens are springing up all across Southern Ontario.

It has been estimated that some of our food travels as much as 1500 miles from farm to table. The process of planting, fertilizing, processing, packaging, and transporting our food uses a great deal of energy and contributes to the cause of global warming.

Planting a Victory Garden to fight global warming would reduce the amount of pollution your food contributes to this global warming. Instead of traveling many miles from farm to table, your food would travel from your own garden to your table.

First Lady Michelle Obama gathers with local school children to break ground for the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn.

Our current economic situation is another good reason to start a Victory Garden. Every time that food is shipped from the farm to the store and your table, gasoline is used. As gasoline prices rise, food costs rise.

How can our actions make a difference?

You can combine vegetable plants with flowers in your home garden. If you have limited yard space, try container growing on your porch, patio or balcony. Some plants, such as pots of herbs or sprouts, can even be grown indoors on a sunny window sill. Check to see if community garden space is available in your neighbourhood, or consider sharing a garden plot with a neighbour—work in exchange for a portion of the produce. Also consider purchasing locally grown food at area farmer’s markets, as well as organically grown produce with little or no chemical pesticides and minimal packaging.