Remember Your Grandmother’s Victory Garden?

Posted on April 1, 2014 by Peter Comart  |  no comments yet

harvest of garden vegetablesIf your grandmother was anything like mine, she had quite a garden.  Grandpa said, “She could make a broomstick bud and put out roots.”  Like many working-class people of her time–for my Grandmother–gardening, canning, and maybe having a few chickens, was just what most folks did.

In the working-class neighborhoods where she lived, she grew to know people of every race and country. Like her, many were from a European rural or peasant tradition. Other families had moved down from French Canada, or north out of Appalachia or the Deep South. Like every other women on her street of worker row-housing, she kept a garden to stretch her husband’s small weekly paychecks and, as she would say, “keep the wolf from the door.”  These immigrant women traded seeds, shared produce, and put each other’s kids to work.

The ‘Wolf’ came knocking for thousands of Americans in 1929 with the stock market crash that heralded the coming of the Great Depression.  Almost overnight factory orders fell and layoffs began.  By 1930, Grandpa had joined the hordes of jobless men riding the rails or hitch-hiking to that next rumored harvest or government construction project, while Grandma and the five kids shared a coldwater, shotgun, walk-up in Brooklyn.  In the midst of a sprawling and desperate city, wedged between tenements, Grandma found a patch of ground and sunlight and made it come alive with greens, pole-beans, root crops, and her beloved tomato plants.

With four cents, she could get a pound of chicken necks from the butcher, with which–simmered with carrots, celery, beans, and other garden blessings–she made many a meal for her family.  In the country, in the street-car suburbs, and in the cities, many Americans of that generation remember the garden as a practical necessity and a saving grace.  In the early 1930s, Scott & Helen Nearing moved to Stratton Mt., Vermont to begin their experiments with the ‘Good life,’ and economist Ralph Barsodi created his School of Living in Rockland County, New York. They all practiced sustainable gardening as a mainstay of personal and community self-reliance.

By 1943, my Grandmother and her neighbors had appropriated a trash-strewn lot, which they’d divvied up for Victory Gardens.  With three sons overseas, wartime food rationing, and posters suggesting that every home-garden was a nail in Hitler’s coffin, Grandma kept doing what she’d always done.  Like most Americans, she had a personal relationship with the practice of gardening, but also perfectly understood it’s broader effects and implications.  She also was not so proud, that she wouldn’t undertake a small thing that might do a little good.

A funny thing happened in the 1950s. Grandma’s garden went out of style.   The country rode a wave of post-war prosperity. All the kids were working,   married, and starting families. With their army savings, the boys had gotten   Grandma and Grandpa into a small house. Naturally, she had a garden, but   the kids asked her, wasn’t she getting too old for that? “Mom, you don’t   have to garden any more!” They bought her a refrigerator and a television,   and frozen vegetables were cheap and easy to prepare. But Grandma still   kept to her frugal ways. She still lived within her means,  still counting   her change at the grocery store, and  still tending a garden.

Nevertheless, growing a vegetable garden in the 1950s and 60s, in the midst of all that plenty, when agribusiness seemed triumphant and America was feeding the world, well, someone who did that was kind of a kook!  Children and grandchildren were increasingly cut off, just like their parents, from the realities, responsibilities and satisfactions of food production.  Kids got used to eating vegetables and fruit that was uniform in size and color, and came without spots or blemishes. Their parents got used to opening a carton or popping a frozen tray into the oven. Vegetables fresh from the garden, well, they looked like they’d been in the dirt!

Historians say that the loss of farms, from the Depression to the 1950s, coincided with a new 1960s generation’s dissatisfaction with their parent’s suburban lifestyles and rediscovery of a rural ideal.  Uncertainties about Nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the Vietnam conflict, and so much else, fueled a wave of interest in cutting loose from the greater society and creating a simple and sane alternative.  Abandoned farms were inexpensive for young college students, who could pool their money and were used to city property values.  Home-owner versions of labor-saving tools, such as chainsaws and garden tillers, brought country living within the range of what an individual or couple could undertake.  Youthful exuberance, naiveté, and strong, young backs took care of the rest!

Gardening was central to this movement—the Back-to-the-Land Movement– that is now a part of American history.  A new generation looked with respect at their elders who still knew and practiced the crafts and skills of rural living, and which—in the Ozarks, Vermont’s North-East Kingdom, and many other areas—had not ever really gone out of style.

Newcomers to rural life faced a steep learning curve: For many, the appeal of country life faded before the realities of hard work.  Yet, in the 1970s, this movement was tremendously innovative, even playful.  Those who stuck it out were not afraid of hard work, but saw no sense in labor for labor’s sake.  Nationally circulated magazines, such as John Shuttleworth’s  Mother Earth News and Stewart Brant’s Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly, spread encouragement, philosophical validation, the gospel of self-reliance, and new tools and approaches. The test of a tool or strategy was in whether it worked: Doctrinaire approaches that did not meet the test—whether old country ways or new, faddish ones—fell by the way.

With a nod to traditional gardening right-practice, new blends of conventional and natural growing, cold-frame and greenhouse technology, alternative building and energy applications, and new kitchen and cash crops were experimented with.  County Agricultural Extension Agents, who once spent most of their time on dairy herd management and modern, economy-of-scale approaches, were suddenly getting questions on non-toxic weed-control, raising oriental mushrooms, or hand-milking Alpine goats.

The OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973 spawned an energy crisis that fell particularly hard on rural communities. Long commutes, fuel prices, and fertilizer costs skyrocketed.  Many families looked with new fondness at their gardens, pantries of canned goods, and their woodpiles.  Many Americans who had left these self-reliance activities behind them as they moved to the suburbs and cities, looked for ways to take them up again. Perhaps they were thinking back to Grandmother’s garden (and Grandpa’s wood-pile), but in a new format, adaptable to their contemporary circumstances.

By the 1990s  those Sixties & Seventies ‘newcomers’ to rural living are not so new any more. Many are models and mentors to a new generational wave of ‘Do-It-Yourselfers,’ and contemporary urban, suburban, and rural gardeners who grasp the potential for local solutions to global problems They have families, have taken on community responsibilities, and—more often than not—are making an income away from their home. They have not abandoned their ideals, but are keen on finding ways to combine a healthy, ‘Green’ lifestyle with the hectic realities of family, work, and community life.

Today’s gardeners bring to their considerations a deep appreciation of family and regional tradition, a commitment to living in more sustainable ways, and a sense of the value of their own time and effort—really, a sense of their limitations.

Perhaps, you grow a family backyard garden for much the same reasons as your grandparents or great-grandparents.  You, too, may feel the ‘Wolf’ at the door: A paycheck is larger now than in my Grandmother’s day, but the average working family still needs to stretch it.  While she planted a garden everywhere she lived to help support her family, don’t think for a minute that she wasn’t engaged with making some small contribution to the greater good, be it leaving a bag of snap-beans at a neighbor’s door or doing her bit to strike a blow against Hitler.  A garden is something most of us can do to live in a more healthy and self-reliant way, to reduce our own food expenses, and to contribute to the greater planetary good. I’m glad I got to see my Grandmother in her garden.

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