Every Garden a Liberty Garden

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of what was then considered “the war to end all wars.” I have a personal interest in those sad and frightening days in November 1918, when the flu pandemic was sweeping through the world and Europe was in shambles. My grandmother was a very young graduate of St. Raphael’s School of Nursing in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in November 1918 (a photo of her class is below). Because all the doctors and experienced nurses were working nonstop dealing with flu patients, she was immediately sent to St. Cloud Hospital to deliver babies. (I’m sure the mothers-to-be were thrilled to see a 22-year-old there to help them through labor.)

So, when I was doing research for my book, I was especially interested in how gardeners responded during those years around the First World War and then later during World War II. Liberty Gardens – also called Victory Gardens – began in England in 1914 and came to the United States in 1917. A poor potato crop that year meant the military could not purchase enough food for troops, and President Woodrow Wilson and others encouraged home gardeners to join the fight and grow their own food. This would leave more commercially grown food for the troops and for distribution to people in Europe, some of whom were starving. Homegrown food also allowed railroads to be used to transport other goods and troops.


world war I garden poster
Posters and educational material encouraged home gardening during World War I.

The response was impressive, with all sorts of school and community gardens forming and home gardeners doing their bit. In 1917, 350 million pounds of food came from Liberty Gardens. Neighbors were encouraged to share land, tools and canning equipment. Seeds were precious commodities and instruction manuals (here’s one) gave explicit directions for garden location, soil amendment, how to sequence plantings, fighting pests and storing food for winter, both in the home and in community storage facilities. What’s striking about these manuals is that much of the information is still good (the pest stuff is a little chemical heavy for my taste)—and it’s given in brief, direct language. Buy seeds early. Space plants according to directions so you don’t waste seed. Plant cabbages 15 inches apart in rows 30 inches apart. Plant radishes and early lettuce between the rows. Dig potatoes on bright days and allow them to lay on the ground a few hours. Save next year’s seed from this year’s crop. Don’t waste anything. Help your country.

In World War II, the movement returned with Victory Gardens, community canning sites and other efforts to grow food to feed those on the home front. Some of those Victory Gardens are still in existence, such as Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis. And, the idea of gardening in community or alone remains compelling. I don’t think its a surprise that in these times of vast technological change more young people are growing plants and food and many community gardens have waiting lists.

Every garden is liberating. Gardening gets us out of our heads and the social media din that surrounds many of us today. It’s something we do with our hands and senses. We smell the tang of marigolds; touch a tomato to feel its ripeness, hear the bees and birds that will flock to just about any garden. We taste the bitter leaves of argula or the tart cherries just picked in early July. We stretch our muscles while weeding and learn to spy the caterpillars and insects hiding in the soil and beneath the petals of flowers. We pay attention.  

Food gardening, particularly, liberates us to make decisions about what goes into our bodies and how we treat the plots of earth in our care. Gardening also connects communities, as anyone who has ever planted more than a couple of trees and some shrubs in the front yard knows. Nothing gets neighbors to stop for a chat like a front-yard tomato or a boulevard filled with pollinator plants.

Liberty Gardens started a long time ago, but it’s an attitude and a tradition we still need.

nursing students in white caps and gowns
St. Raphael’s School of Nursing class graduating in November 1918. My grandmother is back row, far right. Photo from St. Cloud Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae Association, downloaded via Minnesota Reflections.