The Northeast Earth Coalition

Victory Gardens in time of crisis

By Jose German

In the past weeks, Montclair residents, facing depleted supermarket shelves and ordered to stay at home, have turned back to a tried and proven response to uncertain times: home-grown food. The Victory Garden, which helped us through two World Wars, is set to make a comeback.

The first victory garden movement was born during World War I when farmers were called to battle and farms became battlefields of the Great War. With a severe food crisis affected Europe, the United States assumed the role of feeding millions of starving Europeans. Charles Lathrop Pack, one of the wealthiest men in the country, began organizing the Victory Garden movement weeks before United States joined the war in 1917. Pack encouraged Americans to contribute to plant all available land, including yards, schoolyards, parks, and vacant lots, to grow food to support the war effort. Pack’s efforts were very effective, with a total of 5.2 million new garden plots cultivated by 1918.

The movement lost popularity after the armistice, only to reemerge stronger than ever with the United States’ entry into the Second World War in 1941. Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture was not initially happy with this initiative. However, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to jumpstart the movement by creating a Victory Garden on the White House lawn, and by 1944 around 20 million victory gardens produced more than 40% of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the country. Victory gardens were seen as a way for Americans on the home front to support the struggle against fascism, with the added benefit of supplementing diets in a time of food rationing.  The war’s end in 1945, along with the post-war obsession with large-scale industrialized agriculture, brought about a second demise of this inspiring movement.

Montclair is well known for residents gardening at home to produce their own food. One of the town’s pioneers in home food production going back to the war years was Bob McLean, who moved to Montclair with his parents in the 1920’s. He told me, “I planted my first garden when I was six years old, buying seeds with three cents my parents gave me.”

McLean was ahead of his time on organic gardening, which became a dominant motivation in his life. I had the privilege of being his friend and interviewed him just weeks before he passed away on March 18, 2011. McLean’s garden was impressive, as was the quality of his soil. He pointed out to me the difference in the level between his yard and his neighbors’ yards. “My yard’s soil is eight inches higher than theirs as the result of decades of composting.”

McClean’s Gordonhurst Avenue home was just across the street from another devoted organic gardener, Pat Kenschaft. The growing awareness in Montclair of the benefits of growing food at home owes much to Kenschaft’s tireless efforts. She has inspired countless people with her organic garden, sharing her gardening journey through open garden tours and via email.

The Victory Garden movement, nowadays more commonly referred to as urban farming, is very strong in Montclair. In addition to backyard – or front yard – vegetable gardens at private homes, organizations in town have created community gardens to support families in need and food programs for those without space to grow their own. Leading organizations promoting community gardens in Montclair include A Lot to Grow; Montclair Community Farm, and the Northeast Coalition (NEEC).

Montclair High School students created a community garden at Rand Park, which, like most such gardens in town, donates the produce to local food pantries. One of the students who was active in the project is Lily Becker. Becker, now 20 years old and a sophomore at Cornell University, is a member of the NEEC. With her university closed due to the Coronavirus crisis, Becker returned to Montclair and made use of her free time to create an impressive backyard vegetable garden with eight raised beds – and a chicken coop! The garden will provide all the veggies her family needs, not to mention those eggs. Becker told me she wants “to inspire people my age about being sustainable and growing your own food.” As a young woman, Becker feels the overwhelming pressure to take action against the climate crisis, and home food production is a start. She says, “I need to send a message to my peers in college and in my community that this is the right thing to do.” The Coronavirus pandemic was the trigger motivating her to be ready in case of a food shortage.

Partners for Health Foundation, a local nonprofit organization promoting healthy diets, supports many of the community gardens in Montclair. Along with Cornucopia Network of New Jersey, a local organization supporting local food production, it partially funded a new community garden developed by the NEEC’s Urban Growers Program on Pine Street at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. This garden is unique since provides food for three refugees families from Central America that live on the premises. Each family has its own plot, and they have already planted the garden with peas, lettuce, cilantro, potatoes, carrots, onions, and radishes, among other veggies. Of the twelve raised beds in the garden, six are dedicated to Toni’s Kitchen food program, support people facing food insecurity. According to NEEC board member David Wasmuth, “the garden is a great way for the refugee families to keep occupied during the forced shutdown while supplementing their own food needs and helping out in the community.”

In times of crisis, Americans have turned to Victory gardens. This movement, born of war, continues to inspire people today in the face of the Coronavirus struggle, helping families to grow their own organic food steps from their kitchens.

How to create a Victory Garden:

  1. Find a spot in your yard that receives at least six hours of direct sun;
  2. Get organic soil, available in your preferred nursery, and a bag of compost to be mixed with the soil.
  3. Make a raised bed of natural wood. Treated wood has arsenic contaminates the soil. Have a small space? Containers will do.
  4. Get seeds (preferably non-GMO). Heirloom seeds are best.
  5. Don’t have patience to grow from seed? Your local nursery sells seedlings.
  6. If critters are a problem, protect your garden with a fence or a net.

Check out our previous articles in the column Gardening for Life (available online) for more details about growing your own food.