The Victory Garden Movement

“The Victory Garden movement throughout the country in 1942
made every one conscious of the importance of fresh vegetables, but when cabbages vied for attention with the tropical water-lilies in the main plaza of the Missouri Botanical Garden, as they did last summer, that was news.”
-Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin, 1943

As strange as it may sound, gardening played an important role during World War II. The Victory Garden movement not only helped relieve pressure on the food supply, but also fostered a sense of national pride on the Home Front. According to the National World War II Museum, there were more than 20 million Victory Gardens supplying more than one million tons of vegetables during the war.

The Missouri Botanical Garden was part of this patriotic effort, both creating a Victory Garden on grounds, and educating the public on how to plant and maintain their own. The Garden also hosted Victory Garden Harvest Shows from 1942-1945, and donated the proceeds to the war effort.

The following excerpts were first published in the March 1943 edition of the Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin:

Report on the 1942 Victory Garden

When a nation goes to war there follows a train of changes in daily life too numerous to mention. The gravest of these is the scarcity of food because of labor shortages, transportation difficulties and the tremendous demands of the army, the navy and, in this war, the lend-lease agency. Fresh vegetables are among the first of the food items to reflect the rapid changes. The Victory Garden movement throughout the country in 1942 made every one conscious of the importance of fresh vegetables, but when cabbages vied for attention with the tropical water-lilies in the main plaza of the Missouri Botanical Garden, as they did last summer, that was news.

“The war has forced emphasis on home-grown vegetables which have become scarce and very expensive (as much as 25 cents for a head of lettuce or stalk of celery in December), and while there were some home gardens in 1942 doubtless there will be many more in the next few years.”
-Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin, 1943
Victory Garden
Ceremony in front of Tower Grove House during the Victory Garden Harvest Show in October 1942.

The 1942 Victory Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden was managed as nearly as possible like an average city garden in St. Louis, even though it was located in the middle of a big botanical garden. All the work was done by one of the “white-collar” workers from the office, in such hours as could be spared from his regular job. Even during his vacation the plot was turned over to another office worker rather than a regular gardener. Perhaps this should have been made clear by a special sign, for during the rush of spring planting, when the work was being done in the morning before breakfast and late in the evening and on Sunday mornings, more than one visitor was heard to make the remark, “Well, it’s a nice clean-looking garden but then it ought to be; look at all the help they have.”

Victory Garden
A Garden staffer tends to the Victory Garden in 1942.

The Victory Garden was planned for a family of three, and a special effort was made to avoid growing more than was needed of any one crop. The plot chosen was 30 by 34 feet, the size and shape of many back-yard gardens in St. Louis. Since it was laid out on the site of the old “Before and After” gardens, the soil and plants already there were similar to those of a below-average back-yard. Planting was started on March 20th and the first radishes and onions were harvested on April 27th. While there was occasionally too much of one crop or too little of another, on the whole the garden just nicely filled the needs of the family for which it had been planned. It lacked only two days of being in full production for six months when a heavy frost killed the tomatoes and other tender plants to the ground on October 25. Even after that date, however, it continued to supply lettuce, collards, turnips, beets, and parsley.

Victory Garden
The entrance to the 1942 Victory Garden Harvest Show, featuring the Garden’s Palm House and Lily pool.

From the very start the Victory Garden was thought of not only as a demonstration during the 1942 season but as an experiment from which the average St. Louisan might get valuable information in 1943 or 1944. It certainly demonstrated that, in spite of special difficulties, vegetable gardening can be carried on successfully in the city of St. Louis. The vegetables obtained not only paid for the seed (the tomatoes harvested in one week in October more than paid the expenses of the entire garden) but they even gave a fair return in dollars and cents for the time spent in working in the plot.

Victory Garden
Red cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, and rhubarb chard planted in the Garden in 1942.

Cassidy Moody, Digital Media Specialist

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