I’ve tried to write this blog post for a week and there’s no real easy way to say why or how The Peterson Garden Project came together other than love. Love of history, love of gardening and love of community. And maybe a potentially lethal dose of curiosity…
Last winter I was traveling a lot for work and my husband suggested I find a topic to research during my quiet nights in hotel rooms. He eventually suggested Victory Gardens knowing what a vegetable gardening freak I am.
[I also secretly think the thought this would save him from endless planting diagrams and seed list discussions over the winter. But his plan backfired a bit... now I'm not only obsessed with our own garden but with gardens that don't even exist anymore.]
What I found when I started researching Chicago’s role in the WW2 Victory Garden movement was more powerful, important and timely than I could have imagined. I’ve chronicled many of those discoveries in this blog so I won’t go into it here.
The question that ultimately drove this quest was how Chicago got so much accomplished in the Victory Garden movement. Although the parks, city, businesses and government were behind the movement, in the end it came down to the efforts of block captains – dedicated neighborhood volunteers in charge of developing and organizing Victory Gardens.
After months of research, many lectures and a lot of blog posts that potentially lethal dose of curiosity got me to wondering if the model set out in WW2 for Chicago Victory Gardens would work today. Around the same time I realized that an empty lot on Peterson Ave. was once part of an original Victory Garden… this got the mental hamster wheel turning.
If the lot is available why couldn’t I “volunteer” to be block captain and use the guidelines set out in WW2 to work with my neighbors and local businsses to create a new Victory Garden?
So, following the WW2 playbook, my block captain duties began…
Just like many Victory Garden lots in the 1940s, ours was privately owned. First, I approached Alderman Pat O’Connor to see if he was into another community garden in the 40th ward – and boy was he! He said yes before I was done with my pitch. He and his team then worked with the property owners, Asian Human Services, to secure the land. In the end, all that was ultimately required is that participants sign a hold-harmless waiver to protect them from liability – seems fair.
In WW2 this lot was virgin land. As we’re finding it almost 70 years later we are gardening over the foundation of a building that no longer exists. There is some topsoil but not enough to garden so we’re going to use raised beds and square foot methods (for greater yield). We will use organic practices which will require bringing in organic compost and soil.
Step Three: Arrange for Plowing
This is a moot point for us but was a really big deal during WW2 as people used traditional gardening row methods vs. raised beds.
Step Four: Community Victory Garden Council
This is the part where it gets tricky because during WW2 the Office of Civilian Defense provided organization and education for the thousands of block captains marshaling the gardening troops in their neighborhoods. I don’t have that but I do have THE INTERNET which will help me provide organization and education for the gardeners in The Peterson Garden Project.
It is important to note that 90% of the gardeners in WW2 Victory Gardens had never gardened before… so we’re encouraging neighbors with no experience too… the benefit of that is next year, they’ll be able to help new gardeners themselves… it’s kind of a “give a man a fish, he eats for a day – teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime” thing…
Step Five: Maintain Enthusiasm
Almost 8 million people started gardening in 2009 for the express purpose of growing their own food. Who knows how many will do the same thing in 2010 but the expectation is a lot. So I’m hoping the enthusiasm thing will take care of itself. However, from my research, I know that parades, celebrations and festivities were utilized to keep morale up during the war. We’ll see how the project goes and if any parades or festivals are needed. We are doing a fundraiser on May 20 and a ground breaking ceremony on May 24 so perhaps that will count…
Step Six: Plan Harvest Festivals
This should probably be in the morale category… in 1943 there was a city-wide harvest festival at Soldier Field that thousands of Chicagoans participated in. There was also a drive for 1944 Victory Garden volunteers, of which they got thousands.
Maybe by the end of the summer when we’re celebrating the harvest of The Peterson Garden Project there will be more interested people, and maybe more city lots converted to retro Victory Gardens to celebrate.
So there you have it the idea (insanity?) behind this retro community Victory Garden. I’m curious to see what all of us participating in this project will have to contribute to the history of Victory Gardens in Chicago at the end of the summer!
WE WANT YOU! If you want to garden, volunteer or donate, find more information at www.petersongarden.org