This post first appeared in April of last year. We were just starting plans for The Peterson Garden Project which became the largest edible, organic community garden in Chicago.
As much of a novelty as our garden was last year – developing almost overnight on private land – I have heard of numerous other “pop-up” gardens happening on private land throughout the city for 2011. Much like WW2, land owners, neighbors and businesses are banding together to make food production possible for urban gardeners.
This new activity is in addition to the ongoing good work done by city organizations such as Neighborspace, the Chicago Park District and others who advocate for, manage and create new community gardens for Chicago residents all the time, albeit on city-owned lots or park property.
[One new edible garden on park land is the Merchant Park Community Garden. They've taken an unused triangle of land and turned it into an edible garden for their neighbors in the Irving Park community.]
There’s a saying “the only thing we learn from history is we learn nothing from history” (Friedrich Hegel) but I think when it comes to WW2 Victory Gardens inspiring a whole new generation of gardeners this old adage might prove wrong.
If you’re interested in starting a community garden in Chicago, or anywhere, we’re happy to help. Send a note to email@example.com. Or become a member of the American Community Gardening Association to learn how you can participate in your community.
Chicago Victory Gardens 101
The year – 1943 – was a banner growing season for Chicago Victory Gardens. As the war was in its second year, Chicagoans rallied community-by-community to do all they could for the effort and to alleviate the shortages caused by the largest international conflict of all time.
As transportation resources were diverted to moving troops and munitions, shipping fresh produce to market fell low on the priority list. In addition, the glut of low-wage workers from the Great Depression were finding jobs in military-related industries so farms were short-staffed and unable to meet the food demands of the nation. To complicate matters, materials previously used for canning food were now needed for weapons.
Simply put: there was not a lot of food available to buy.
In response to this crisis, massive coordinated efforts across Chicago – by hundreds of thousands of average citizens – created four gardening seasons (1942-1945) the likes of which have not been seen since…
Here’s some of the surprising facts of the “army of gardeners” in 1943 who fed Chicago, kept up morale and did their part for Victory:
- 90% of the people who grew Victory Gardens had never gardened before
- 14,000 plots were gardened by children on Chicago Park District land
- The largest Victory Garden in the country was in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood
- 800 families farmed this gigantic garden
- Victory Gardens produced 55,000 pounds of food during the summer of 1943
- Chicago-based companies such as Marshall Fields and International Harvester donated seeds and garden equipment
- A city ordinance prevented theft from Victory Gardens with fines of $600-$2,400 in today’s currency
- An estimated 172,000 Victory Gardens sprang up in Chicago in 1943
- 908 acres of which were on private/city lots or park property
- Communities held dozens of “harvest festivals” in the fall of 1943 including a city-wide festival at Soldier Field attended by thousands of Chicagoans
Fast forward to 2011… while not embroiled in the largest international conflict of all time, we do face food-related concerns and a new trend toward growing one’s own food is again sweeping the country:
- In 2011, for the first time since the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s, garden seeds were rumored to be in short supply
- Sales for home canning supplies have increased 40% since 2009
- According to a recent Garden Writers Association poll, 65% of the American public has a lawn or garden and approximately 53% of the American public is now growing vegetables
It is important to remember that today’s challenges aren’t that different from those almost 70 years ago – our food supply is in jeopardy. It doesn’t matter the cause – we are feeling similar concerns. And, like those Chicagoans who had never gardened before, we can raise our own food on our backyards and neighborhood plots.
Chicago’s Victory Garden efforts were so coordinated and successful that our plan was sent out by the US Government to other major urban areas as a blueprint for success.
Perhaps, once again, we can rally and provide an example for our country in urban food production… who’s in?