A Gardening Lesson From WW2: Keep It Simple Stupid

My father was in the Occupied Forces of Japan during WW2 and that experience influenced his life profoundly… he had a lot of wartime expressions peppering his conversations (and a few fun songs too, like this). He particularly liked mentioning the KISS Principal (keep it simple stupid) when I tended to complicate things. Of course, being an awesome daddy, he always said (with a beautiful smile) “keep it simple, sweetheart.” But I got the point.

Over the last four years as I’ve worked with the Peterson Garden Project to teach a new generation of food gardeners in our Pop-up Victory gardens, the KISS Principal has been very beneficial. We set up our gardens so they’re uniform (bed sizes are all the same), we teach a unified gardening method (a variation of Square Foot Gardening) and we teach organic practices. And, since our gardeners are often brand new, we keep our educational materials it very, very simple.

During my research on the Victory Garden era I’ve been obsessed with one question: how did cities teach large chunks of their population to grow food so quickly? They followed the KISS Principal, of course, by providing regionally specific basic gardening instruction.

As I’ve poured over WW2 literature in libraries all over the country, a few themes have emerged with the various city gardening guides I have uncovered – they’re all very basic, they all talk about dealing with the local growing conditions and they all contain an element of “self help” encouraging gardeners to try it. In the case of WW2 the motivation was food shortages, of course, and this and other patriotic messages are woven into all the materials. But, basically, each city is a variation on these few ideas –  keep it local, keep it simple and keep it positive.


As I mentioned, the volunteer educators of PGP have been teaching a lot of people over the last four years how to grow food. We’re not in a wartime situation or facing food shortages so peoples’ motives are somewhat different than they were in WW2.  New gardeners have their own sense of what Victory Today is – learning a new skill, saving money, having access to fresh food, getting outside more, being involved in their community, reducing their carbon footprint. They’re all different and they’re all valuable.

But one thing that is the same as WW2 – there is great interest in this type of education. Our scope with the Pop-up Victory gardens is limited to the four or five rotating community gardens we manage, the Edible Treasures garden at the Field Museum and our demo garden at our Learning Center (we have about 3,000 people gardening and volunteering with us). There’s a lot of demand for garden space in a congested city like Chicago and, if we had the funding, we could put in another 10 gardens this spring – there’s that much interest! But we can’t do that – we have to keep it simple (stupid) and focus our efforts on what makes the biggest impact and reaches the most people.

So, with history as our inspiration, we’ve written our own WW2-esque gardening guide – Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland!

FFG_Cover_1231_web copyThis 80-page book addresses the topics and questions we hear most. It is written in a month-by-month format specifically for brand new (potentially scared) gardeners and provides lots of helpful tips and charts. It is applicable to anyone, in a home or community garden, who wants to learn to grow their own food. And you don’t have to live in Chicago to benefit from it – it is useful in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 and 6 (but it does focus on small space gardening.)

If you want to grow your own food, know someone who does or want to support Peterson Garden Project you can order your own copy HERE. (And please feel free to help spread the word!)

I’m excited about 2014. Excited for new gardens but mostly excited for new gardeners growing for the first time this spring. And, as I like to say, “history re-eating itself”…



P.S. Not all the WW2 era books kept it simple, FYI… Here’s an image from a very elaborate hydroponic gardening guide I found at the New York Public Library!


LaManda JoyA Gardening Lesson From WW2: Keep It Simple Stupid

Related Posts