Garden Fresh History

Black and white image of a man tending to a lush vegetable garden. There is a house in the background and a road off to the side.

The current uprise of home gardening isn’t the first time we’ve torn up lawns to grow our own produce.

This article continues the Heritage at Home series, originally launched in the Spring as a limited series, and offered during a time when we dealt with cancelled onsite programs and COVID-19 restrictions. The response was positive, with some lovely and heartfelt comments shared with us, so we’ve decided to periodically showcase even more stories that inform, challenge, amuse or bemuse. Check back often.

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By Adam Ahrens, July 9, 2020

New Growth

From food security to mental health, the recent rise in gardening is about more than just tackling a new hobby.

Though some people might be using more of their free time to binge Netflix, others continue to adjust to this new lifestyle, addressing ongoing stress about the virus, new work challenges or the loss of work, or concerns about being able to put enough food on the table.

Because of these and other reasons, a movement has begun to spread across North America. It is the triumphant return of the victory garden.

Over the past few months, the gardening industry has seen a boom in young amateur gardeners, sprouting up and buying seeds en-masse. Be it in their backyards or front lawns, on balconies or window sills, Canadians are getting creative with their urban gardening.

"A Vegetable Garden for Every Home" pamphlet by S. C. Johnston, Ontario Department of Agriculture, March, 1917. Image: Toronto Public Library

Green Home Front

Victory gardens are nothing new. Their roots can actually be traced back to the First World War.

The victory garden began as a patriotic way for civilians to grow their own food on the home front during the latter half of the First World War. Government-issued booklets like ‘A Vegetable Garden for Every Home’, helped instruct first time gardeners on every aspect of the process: from digging and raking soil, to frequency of watering, to what to plant and where, and when to harvest.

However the victory garden didn’t catch on in popularity until the Second World War.

At the start of the war, the Canadian government actually discouraged the practice. Amateur gardeners would put a strain on the country’s seed supply, and could potentially waste crop through inexperience. They could divert precious resources, like metal needed for weapons manufacturing, into making more garden tools.

Then, in 1943 after protests from avid gardeners erupted, and the seed supply stabilized, the government started supporting victory gardens. Everyone, young and old, was encouraged to help grow more food to relieve strain on food supplies going overseas, and the transport systems needed to move it. Toronto mayor Frederick Conboy started growing a crop of tomatoes on his front lawn.

Larger organizations like Ontario Hydro-Electric Club contributed to the cause by providing extra land, seeds and lessons on growing and preserving food.

WATCH this NFB video of a wartime animated short promoting victory gardens.

Poster, "Come into the Garden Dad!", c. 1918. Image: Archives of Ontario

Good for the Patriotic Mind, Body and Soul

Aside from the benefits of producing additional food, the simple act of gardening also had its perks.

As the Canadian government ramped up its promotion of victory gardens, it emphasized the many mental and physical health benefits gardening could provide.

Victory gardens could bring families and communities closer together through shared work. Gardening promoted self reliance and patriotism, allowing people to contribute to an important wartime effort. It was also a pleasant distraction from the war as a form of self expression. The government and local organizations took this last moral booster even further by holding yearly victory garden contests.

The government stressed the physical health benefits of a victory garden. At the time, army applicant rejections were at an all time high due to malnutrition.

We can still get many of these same benefits today. Gardening can be therapeutic, as it not only gives you something to do with your hands, but also forces you to slow down and practice patience; something many of us need and struggle with. You can improve your physical health by supplementing your diet and increasing its nutritional value with food grown from your garden. And even if you can’t physically interact with your community through a shared garden, there’s nothing stopping you from delivering your extra produce to your neighbours’ doorsteps with a friendly note attached.

Poster, "Help Canada and have fun, too!", 1939-1945. Image: Canadian War Museum
While hard work is involved, starting a garden isn’t as unattainable a goal as some may think.

Granted, unless you happen to own an acre of farmable land, you’re not going to be totally self sufficient in providing your own food. But that shouldn’t discourage you from reaping the bounty of a home garden.

In the past, Ontario’s victory gardens played host to a variety of classic crops like potatoes, tomatoes, peas, beans, carrots, cucumber and lettuce.

Today, Foodland Ontario lists many more options for crops you can plant, some of which can survive the harsh Canadian winters – from asparagus, beets and broccoli, to mushrooms, spinach and even some Asian vegetables.

All you need are seeds, good soil, and a shovel.

Locally Grown Pantry

Food production poster, "How to Serve Better Meals - And Help Canada's War Effort", 1942. Image: Canadian War Museum

Recipes for Victory!

Home cooking has also been on the rise ever since the pandemic struck. We've all witnessed the bare baking shelves in grocery aisles.

If you want to do more for your neighbours than simply share your crop – or you’re just desperate for something different to eat – there are a plethora of ways to cook up your home grown fruits and veggies into classic or inventive dishes.

Many people have found home cooking to be an amazing creative outlet, and as something to bond over online. Many amateurs have turned to Instagram to learn from several renowned Toronto chefs to elevate their dishes.

If you’re not sure what to make from the food you’ve grown, check out this list of 40 recipes from inspired by victory gardens of the past.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there, get your hands dirty, and start growing.

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