19 Mar

World War I War Gardens

1916 was a year of world wide crop failures, and few surplus food supplies remained as 30 million WWI soldiers were commissioned in European countries.  Most of these soldiers had been farmers before they were inducted into the armed forces, leaving crops to rot, as farm fields were destroyed by troops’ boots and warfare.

Prior to WWI England produced 1/5 of their own food supply, France produced ½ of theirs, and Italy produced 2/3 of their country’s food. Europe’s drastic food shortages were worsened by the fact that transportation systems across Europe that had not been destroyed were over burdened by the movement of munitions and troops. Even food transported by boat was at risk, as submarines interfered with international shipping.

In March of 1917, before the US entered WWI, the National War Garden Commission (NWGC) was formed by Charles Lathrop Pack.  Pack recruited Luther Burbank as a representative of several major universities, as well as the Commissioner of Education, the President of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Department of Conservation Chair, Secretary of Agriculture, and the Executive Secretary of American Forestry.  The purpose of the NWGC was “ to arouse the patriots of America to the importance of putting idle land to work, to teach them how to do it, and to educate them to conserve by canning and drying all the food they could not use while fresh.”

After the US entered WWI in April 1917, the pressure on American food supplies increased dramatically. The City Farmer became the solution to land, labor and transportation shortages.  Its goal was to increase the food supply without utilizing established agriculture land, farmers or the transportation system – all of which were unable to meet current demand.

The commission publicized War Gardens with pamphlets, printed material for newspaper distribution, and colorful propagandist posters.

Even small garden plots made possible the saving of some wheat and meat and potatoes needed by our army which were the only foods that could be shipped abroad to our allies. Food equaled ammunition for our soldiers to fight.

In the US over 5 million War Gardens were established, as citizens were encouraged to “Put the slacker land to work.” Thousands of acres of vacant lots in towns and cities, where people had re-located to work in industries, were turned into War Gardens.  War Gardens struck a Patriotic Chord for those who could not be soldiers against Prussian Militarism.  ‘Sowing the Seeds of Victory” was a tangible action for right and justice.

The War Commission published and widely distributed free booklets which explained the fundamentals of good garden practices and how to plant and care for vegetables.  Canning and drying manuals taught how to store food for later use. Daily articles were published in all local newspapers.  Poems and posters of encouragement were displayed on bulletin boards throughout cities and towns.

Gardening in WWI was encouraged as an expression of patriotism, to assist in solving the European food crises, and as a resource for recreation and restoration during a stressful time.  Given the success of War Gardens, advocates were hoping to continue the campaign after WWI, renaming them Victory Gardens. Victory Gardens were promoted for their health and civic benefits, but as the government promotions ended, interest dwindled and borrowed lands were re-claimed for their previous uses.

By Margi Vaughn

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