Victory gardens — also called war gardens — were promoted twice in the last century, during World Wars I and II, to reduce the pressure on the public food supply caused by the wars.
The concept was also considered a morale booster. Planting and maintaining fruit and vegetable gardens empowered the people who participated and rewarded them with inexpensive and wholesome food.
The time is right again for 21st century Victory Gardens to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, improve food quality and stabilize food prices that have risen as much as 75 percent in the last six years.
Planting and maintaining gardens became a part of daily life during the two great wars. At their peak in 1944, Victory Gardens produced up to 40 percent of all the vegetables produced nationally. Virtually every back yard and vacant lot was commandeered for the war effort and put to use as a garden.
Some still exist today. The Fenway Victory Gardens in the Back Bay Fens of Boston is still planted with vegetables. Most other remaining municipal Victory Gardens are now landscaped and planted with flowers and shrubs. In New York, neighborhood groups and private citizens have taken over vacant lots, cleaned them up and are growing organic vegetables, selling them for profit at local farmers' markets.
Almost all of the produce available to us today is grown commercially by large agribusinesses on huge plots, sometimes thousands of acres, all planted to the same crops, year after year. Repeated seasonal planting of crops dramatically depletes the soil. To continued harvestable yields therefore requires large applications of fertilizers made from petroleum. The sameness of crops covering large areas invites disease and pests that require the application of pesticides, fungicides and the like. They are made from petroleum.
The distance of the growers from the market requires shipping the produce long distances, sometimes half way around the world. Food transportation burns large amounts of diesel or jet fuel, which is of course made from petroleum. The net result is that much more energy is required to produce our food supply than it provides. The cost of petrochemicals and fuel are the primary cause of low quality high priced food.
A definition of sustainable agriculture is the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to an ecosystem's health. Modern agribusiness is not sustainable agriculture. Small farms and home gardens are sustainable and they are more profitable. According to the Op-Ed piece, "Change We Can Stomach", by Dan Barber in last Sunday's New York Times, a four-acre farm nets a profit of $1,400 per acre. A 1,364-acre farm nets $39 per acre. The added bonus is that the food produced by the small sustainable farm is far more wholesome, nutritious and flavorful than commodity food.
Presently, the only way to bring wholesome food produced from sustainable sources to your table is by shopping at farm stands, farmers' markets, specialty stores or "organic" supermarkets that are only available in larger urban areas. Farm stands and farmers' markets are, of course, only available seasonally in New England, and are often few and far between. It is also unreasonable to expect a small farmer to spend the long hours necessary maintaining a farm and then take the time to bring his produce to market regularly and then stay there to sell. All these outlets for good food should be vigorously supported but could be joyfully supplemented with a home garden of any size. A couple of planters filled with heirloom tomatoes or squash on an apartment balcony can boost morale as much as an entire back yard planted to wholsome vegetables and fruits.
I recently rode from Amsterdam to Paris on a high-speed train. I was astonished, as we sped through countryside villages and towns at how much of that part of Europe was planted — not just the miles of small plots springing green with vegetables and blooming fruit trees but virtually every village backyard as well.
Later, we took a train to Versailles and once we left the industrial sprawl on the outskirts of Paris every back yard, right up to the tracks, was producing some kind of food. Some even housed a few chickens and ducks but I'm not advocating for that — yet.
Memorial Day marks the beginning of the summer season in New England. It also signals the beginning of the frost-free season, safe for planting vegetables.
Just for starters this spring, dig up a corner of your yard and plant a small patch of heirloom tomatoes, a hill or two of squash, some beans and perhaps a row of sweet corn. Start small, the rewards are disproportionately larger than the effort. Imagine how sweet the shortcake made from your own tiny backyard strawberries. Take a little space in your front yard and plant a fruit tree. The spring bloom next year will thrill your neighbors. The fruit in a few years will taste twice as sweet for the effort — and who knows? Maybe you'll have enough left over for a little hard cider to sip after a hard days harvest.
Next fall's leaves become next spring's compost, and you have inserted yourself into a cycle of sustainable agriculture in your own little way which will make you proud to show off your new save the planet calluses.
Bend over. Dig a little hole. Declare victory over bad food at high prices with a 21st century victory garden. To quote Chef Barber again, "the future belongs to the gourmet" — and the backyard victory gardener.
Jack Felber is a New England native and a regular Times columnist. He and his wife, Marcia Felber, are proprietors of The Olympia Tea Room, a harborside restaurant recognized by Wine Spectator magazine and located in Watch Hill, R.I.