Victory Gardens

Written by Karen Kisslinger in July 2006 for the Poughkeepsie Journal

As a child, the garden path I was first led down was the driveway into my mother’s parents home on Lake Bemidji in Northern Minnesota.  There, it seemed to me, as a child, we grew everything.  Our job as children was to pick as many berries … first strawberries, then raspberries, then blueberries, in the mornings … and fish as many perch as we could out of the lake in the afternoon.  We were in Eden. Food was abundant and the earth provided.

The pit of compost in my grandfather’s shed had a warm and profoundly comforting smell that promised me that  abundance would continue.   Our table scraps  decomposed to a rich, warm, fertile pile that smelled wonderful and dark and moist. It would feed and  grow more of the fresh and vital foods we gathered every day …  and also provide handfuls of  writhing worms for fishing bait.  It was all right there, a complete system.  In poor times this was Home, Land and Security.

Those words are used a lot these days and conjure up threats of various kinds.  One of our biggest threats is the fact that  most “modern” people have only a recreational relationship with the land and ultimately a high level of food insecurity.

In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks I remember being struck by a new awareness of  the heavy reliance of Americans on imported food, particularly vegetables and fruits. Community food security strengthened by sustainable small scale food production is not emphasized enough as an aspect of Homeland Security. The “commons” could fill with fruit trees and fields with community gardens. If we are lucky enough to have some land  where we can plant some seeds, we have a deep kind of independence and victory over food insecurity.

Readers interested in the breadth and depth of this subject can refer to the web site of the American Community Gardening Association  and the many other web sites devoted to “Food Security”  In complex ways many people, particularly in our cities, experience food insecurity  when it comes to obtaining the health promoting fruits and vegetables and naturally grown animal products.  In a media environment  decrying degenerative diseases related to poor diet, the irony of being surrounded by food but not by nutrients is growing in importance, particularly in low socio-economic neighborhoods.

I was lucky to have many lessons in food security as a child. Besides  the Minnesota gardens, my father was a gardener.  His father became a gardener by necessity,  feeding five children through the Great Depression and World War II with a victory garden.  It was ultimately a remarkable form of independence.

During World War II, after the Great Depression, it became a patriotic duty to plant a Victory Garden.   In fact tens of millions of Americans did just that, and, toward the end of the war, they grew a harvest of fruits and vegetables equal in size to the national commercial crop.  They also bought hundreds of thousands of pressure cookers,  the dangerous old fashioned kind to “put up” the huge amounts of food they’d grown. Our modernizing population  rose to the cry of  necessity and proudly produced enormous amounts of food.  The time has come to re-invent the Victory Garden on a global scale….but this time the Victory will not be of one nation over another, but of the forces of sustainability and nurturance over the forces of greed, profit, and depletion which have come to rule in large scale industrial agricultural production.

The urge to plant and grow is universal and in the end will provide a victory over the dead toxicity of an electronically based life style and oil dependent agricultural practices.  There can be  victory over greed.  Victory over hybridized seeds made to terminate their own reproduction. Victory over poison.  Victory over hormone disrupting chemicals seeping into our water and our bodies.  Victory over the enormous and the impersonal.  Victory over borders that create enemies and aliens instead of neighbors and friends. Victory over depletion and disease.  Victory over malnourishment.  Victory over drifting genetics that introduce artificially created life forms into the global pollen pool with unknown results.   Victory of the rights and needs of everyday people over rich and powerful economic interests. Ultimately this victory is about independence.

Every year on the fourth of July, I proclaim my own independence day.  Independence from having to buy vegetables until the following December.  This year, I used my last butternut squash from the 2005 garden on May 15.  Butternuts grow wonderfully around here, store well and are the only winter squash variety I know of that is not subject to vine borer damage…the sudden death of long beautiful squash plants when those grubby white worms destroy the vine at just one spot close to the roots. A package of seeds costs about $1 and can supply winter squash for the whole winter.  So, it’s independence from the high cost of organic vegetables, and independence from driving to pick up veggies when I can pick them instead.

My own  moments of primal excitement about growing food are unforgettable. In the fall of 1975 we moved from urban New York to an old dairy farm in Ancramdale and set up house, and one of the first things we did when our first winter there was over was  to start planting things.   Cramming crumpled seed packets into all of my pockets, I had an irrepressible excitement that all I had to do was stick the seeds in the ground at the right time and harvests of wonderful herbs and vegetables would follow.  I couldn’t believe the feeling of opportunity and possibility that filled me as I planted.   I worked to remove rocks from the soil in the gardening space we had chosen behind our new pottery studio. Looking back, we were part of the back-to-the-land movement, and now 30 years later, the absolute necessity of going back to back-to-the-land in a sustainable way is being widely recognized.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a current project and goal to create at least 1 million “Millenium Gardens” nationally, including community, school and home gardens. The project is reminiscent of the Victory Garden effort during World War II.  Alice Waters, the well-known chef from California has started a movement of edible classroom projects, calling gardening and food education the “road to peace.”

The USDA is placing special emphasis on community gardens because of their multiple social benefits. Community gardens add to the beauty of a community and also bring people together to improve their neighborhoods, create positive social interactions that could reduce crime and help increase community food security.

Community Supported Agriculture  projects often involve an element of cooperative work among members.  If you are a home gardener, the USDA is encouraging you too to “plant a row for the hungry.”

It is July 2006, and Victory and Independence are rooted in the Earth, where we find it, in our own back yards, right under our feet or the farms in our own region.    In my own backyard,  for many years, I have had the opportunity to grow all the vegetables my family can eat for   3 ½ seasons of the year. Whether you have a big back yard, a roof top raised bed, or paint buckets filled with soil on the stairs of your apartment, you can begin.   Victory over boredom (really!) . Victory over restlessness and even impatience.  Victory over egotism..for we only collaborate with nature..the greatest creator of exquisite form and real food.

Victory and independence in the garden are gentle satisfactions, the satisfactions of understanding  “home”, “land” and ” security” in new ways   Even with a tiny yard,  much food and flowers can be grown. Any one of us could take initiative for a Millenium Garden or just grow a row extra and donate it to a local food bank, buy a share from a Community Supported Agriculture  project or find some other way to deepen our commitment to sustainable gardening,  to food security, to seed sharing and seed saving and non toxic gardening and to  sharing our wisdom locally and globally.  We can all “pay it forward” together.

Happy Independence Day…and here’s  hoping  that all enjoy the many sweet and sustaining independence of going back to back-to-the-land…even  if it’s just that little bit of Earth  right outside your back door.