In a box my grandmother hadn’t opened for probably fifty years, she found a swath of old family documents, and in it was this book, Gardens for Victory, a comprehensive guide to teach Americans how to supplement their ration cards during World War II with sustainable gardening. We have no idea how the little pamphlet never got thrown away; the spine was very bent and the pages dog-eared, meaning my great-grandparents probably followed its instructions during the war for their own gardens. The fact that it had been saved made it meaningful to me; obviously they’d thought it important enough to put in the folder of family documents.
Clocking in at only around 100 pages, this little book was the most comprehensive and beginner-friendly gardening guide I’ve ever encountered, which I’m sure was the point. Ironically, it’s almost difficult to remember that you’re reading a pamphlet published in 1942, specifically made for a people living through war. The war is barely mentioned, maybe it comes up once or twice, with the focus purely on the lens of the garden and the plants that come from it. The authors’ main goals seemed to be to make gardening as easy and fun as possible while still producing enough food to feed a family of five over the course of a year. From fruit trees to small plots, and even indoor gardening options, this books suggests that food plants can be grown literally anywhere there’s a pot of dirt and a water source.
The book is divided into chapters that cover everything from the vitamin content of different crops, the science of soil, different ways to start seeds, fruit tree care, and even how to get children gardening. One of the most interesting chapters (at least to me) was converting flower gardens into food producers. Woven throughout all the chapters of the book, this idea seemed to be key to the authors, which made me wonder what the general population’s ideas on gardening had become prior to World War II. The authors give many examples of veggie or fruit producing plants that can double as aesthetic foliage while still putting food on the table. They also offer several drawings of suggested garden plots for the most economic use of small spaces, as well as helpful tables showing what crops work best together, and the veggies that will give the most nutritional benefits.
Reading this book made me want to do a little experimental archeology come next planting season to see if the suggestions here were actually useful. But on a bigger note, this was an excellent primary source document for the World War II era that uncovers some of the societal realities of the time. Reading this pamphlet felt like a window into the past and helped me make a personal connection to the world my great-grandparents lived in.
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