Victory Garden Advice from the Past

With so many folks planting a food garden this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to go back into the archives of MSHS and see what kind of advice the hort society had for those tending a victory garden during World War II.

victory garden kale

If only they knew how popular kale would become in the 21st century!

Victory Gardens were encouraged all across the United States during the both world wars of the 20th century, and the government relied on the expertise of horticulturists, such as those at the University of Minnesota, and gardening organizations like the hort society to get the word out about how to grow vegetables well. In Minnesota, counties even held contests to see who could grow and preserve the most food! By 1944, about 20 million victory gardens were planted, which produced 40 percent of the country’s fresh fruit and vegetables that year.

Sound Advice — Still Good!

The April 1943 issue of Minnesota Horticulturist (the predecessor to Northern Gardener) was devoted to growing a victory garden. The advice sounded familiar and frank.

Start with the soil. Growing food requires good soil fertility, which you get by adding organic matter. To improve the soil this year, add compost or composted manure.

Don’t skimp on water. Rain is the best watering for gardens, but if that is insufficient, have a plan for watering your garden. The key with vegetables, especially tomatoes, is consistent watering.

Stagger cool- and warm-season crops. Cool season crops, such as lettuce, spinach, radishes, turnips, peas, kohl-rabi and broccoli, can be planted early to take advantage of spring weather. A second sowing of these quick-growing crops can also be planted in late summer for fall harvest. Warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, should only be planted after all danger of frost is past, generally in late May or even the first part of June.

Take advantage of space where you have it. For maximum harvests, A.E. Hutchins of the U of M, told gardeners in 1943 to plant quick growing crops, like lettuce and radishes, between larger ones, such as tomatoes and cabbage. You can harvest the quick crops before the large ones fill in. He also suggested using trellises to grow climbing crops, such as pole beans, and to stake tomatoes to allow you to plant more food in less space. Finally, showing that nothing is new in the world, Hutchins recommended gardeners plant edibles among their ornamental plants. “Sage, chives, parsley, mint and others are attractive plants and should be interspersed in the flower garden without detracting from its appearance,” he said. We would only add, please put that mint in a pot so it doesn’t take over!

Consider perennial crops. Once you start growing a garden, you’ll be hooked on the satisfaction of growing your own food, not to mention the taste. Then, you may want to try a few perennial crops, those that come back year after year. Rhubarb is a Minnesota staple (and we have a terrific recipe for rhubarb bars) that’s easy to grow and comes back year after year. Asparagus is a bit more complicated to grow, but very satisfying and productive when established. Or, try horseradish! We have an article on that spicy crop in the current Northern Gardener. Fruits are another very satisfying perennial crop, such as raspberries, strawberries or tree fruits, like cherries, apples or plums.

What will you be planting in your victory garden this year?


1 Comment

  1. Richard on June 5, 2020 at 12:26 am

    Hello Mary, I really enjoyed reading your article about gardening advice. I found it very helpful. Thank you, Richard

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