Digging up dirt on the new Victory Garden

Tristin Hopper's mention of Victory Gardens in his article Growth History (April 8) prompted me to rework an article I wrote earlier this year. During the First and Second world wars demands on Britain's domestic foods escalated. Times were lean.

Tristin Hopper’s mention of Victory Gardens in his article Growth History (April 8) prompted me to rework an article I wrote earlier this year.

During the First and Second world wars demands on Britain’s domestic foods escalated.

Times were lean. Shipping routes were blocked. The government encouraged village and city folk grow their own fruits and vegetables and sew seeds by the sackful in the name of necessity and patriotism—“doing one’s bit for the war effort.”

Before long Victory Gardens speckled the country.

Now our concerns revolve around the environment, climate change, food security and sustainability. Add to that a rough economy and kids who figure food grows under golden arches. It’s time to dig up the dirt again on edible gardens.

Victory then

My British granddad planted a Victory Garden just beyond his East Anglia blacksmith shop. He sustained a family of nine almost year round with cabbages, carrots, beets, potatoes and berries—especially gooseberries.

“And the varieties of fruits and vegetables we grew,” says Dad. He remembers his father planting a half-dozen early and late-harvest cabbages brushing snow off a deep green curly winter Savoy.

And talk about recycling. Pipes and rusted-out dustbins served as planters. Discarded windows became ideal cold frames.

In London, plots backed onto Liverpool Street’s railway tracks. (Many still do.). Dad says the Brits sacrificed “lawns, public land and cricket pitches for cabbages.”

Even King George VI turned some turf in St. James’s Park for vegetables.

Britain also spurred the Americans to “dig for victory.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt ploughed up a bit of White House lawn.

Canadian politicians were not as keen, but the Victory Garden Brigade triumphed.

By 1943, Canadian Horticulture and Home was publishing monthly magazine articles on victory gardening. Seed companies bought the concept lock, stock and seed packet. The Vancouver Herald wrote that there were 1,425 gardens on city-owned lots.

Victory now

London’s Royal Parks department resurrected the Second World War Dig for Victory allotment in St. James’s Park. Tended by school groups and community volunteers, it became a working example of how to grow fruit and vegetables, attract wildlife and recycle waste.

In San Francisco, Slow Food Nation revitalized Civic Centre Plaza’s wanton lawn with thousands of fruit and veggie plants. Overwhelming public support, convinced Mayor Gavin Newsom to extend its May-September run until November.

The city of Vancouver boasts around 25-30 community gardens. More seedy plots in the works.

More and more, gardeners are planting zucchini, giving up grass for greens, and planting potatoes. Schools are fostering edible gardens. And the kids are keen.

The Sharing Backyards program (www.sharingbackyards.com), in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo, connects people with yard space to spare to those looking for a place to grow food.

Planting your own little victory corner need not be intimidating, even in the Yukon. Claim a window box, balcony, a sunny patch against a wall, construct (or purchase) small greenhouse. (Remember those discarded windows and frames?)

Sow a few herbs, maybe a pot of cool climate greens for the salad bowl—lettuces, arugula, spinach and chard.

As days become warmer and longer, pot some tiny, sweet tomatoes, (Rush them indoors during light frost).

Plant English cukes, a few peppers—some root veggies. Protect potatoes and carrots with blankets. Preserve and pickle surfeits for the winter. Throw a party where you trade jars of jams and preserves as you would at a cookie exchange. Try making some fruit wine or liqueur.

Last winter, I brushed a foot of snow off one of a couple of planters. Peeking through the white stuff were enough tiny sage leaves and rosemary sprigs for a savoury stuffing, a couple of carrots hidden in the dirt. Victory never tasted so sweet.

Plotting and planting: useful info GardenWise magazine (and www.gardenwiseonline.ca for blogs) Harrowsmith CountryLife The End of Food by Thomas Pawlick (Greystone Books, 2006) Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting by R.J. Ruppenthal (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008) Crops in Pots: 50 Great Container Projects Using Vegetables, Fruit and Herbs by Bob Purnell (Octopus Publishing, 2007) www.casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2008/02/it-is-time-now-for-new-victory-garden.html

The original article appeared in the March/April issue of EAT magazine.

Julie Pegg is a Vancouver-based

food and wine writer.