Growing a Traditional Victory Garden
What to Include on a Victory Garden Plant List
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Angi Schneider – Traditional victory gardens, also called war gardens, came in all shapes, sizes and locations. But one thing they had in common was that they helped the war efforts. During WWI and WW2 the vast majority of people grew some of their own food. It was not only expected, it was patriotic and a symbol of helping to win the war.
By the end of WW2 there was an estimated 20 million victory gardens in the U.S. which produced about 40% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. that year.
The Traditional Victory Garden
There were several circumstances that caused victory gardens to be necessary during both world wars. The first was that farm workers were enlisted to go fight the war. Farm workers leaving en masse left a huge shortage in what farms were able to produce.
But labor wasn’t the only problem; there was also a transportation shortage which made shipping goods across the country difficult. And there was the issue of feeding our overseas troops. Factories needed to prioritize the needs of our troops over the needs of the civilians. After all, civilians could grow their own food or receive help from family and neighbors; the military could not.
The government began encouraging everyone to start growing vegetables in pots and containers, in their yards, at schools, on community land, on rooftops — anywhere that had decent, safe soil.
And the victory garden was born.
The Victory Garden Plant List
What was grown in the traditional victory garden? The USDA put out several guides for what to plant and how to plant, and how to get the most harvest by doing things like succession planting.
The following plants are listed as easiest to grow on the USDA victory garden plant list:
• Beans – bush, lima, pole
• Cabbage – early, late, Chinese
• Chard (Swiss)
• Squash (Bush) – meaning summer squash like zucchini and yellow squash
For a small family (two to four people) they recommended a garden that was 15’x25’ with 15’ rows (15 rows total).
If you had more space and were feeding more people, they recommended a victory garden that was 25’x50’ and had 25’ rows (27 rows total).
How to Grow Your Own Victory Garden
There are some similarities between the economy of the early 40s and the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic — some businesses have closed, money is tight, and transporting goods has gotten a little tougher. One of the hardest things to fathom is that in this land of plenty there are empty grocery shelves.
Many people have decided to take matters into their own hands and plant a garden for the first time, using the traditional victory garden as a guide. And you can too!
The best place to start a garden is by choosing a location. A vegetable garden needs at least six hours of sunlight a day. This location can be in the back or front yard, or even a side yard. If you live in an urban area without a yard look for community gardens to participate in. If there are no community gardens, talk to your city authorities about helping to create one.
Next, make sure the soil is good. You can purchase a home soil test kit or contact your local county extension office about testing your soil. If there’s any chance that the soil has been contaminated with things like lead or oil, you need to choose another location. You can revive soil with organic gardening but it takes time. Most likely, the soil on your property is just fine for starting your garden. Add compost and mulch and in time, you’ll have great soil.
Decide what plants your family will eat. While it’s great to try new things, when space and time and limited, it’s better to just plant what your family likes. Success is measured by feeding your family — not growing lots of food no one will eat.
Find out your plant hardiness zone, also called gardening zone. The USDA has a map that has divided North America into 13 gardening zones based on the average lowest. If you don’t live in North America you can still use the information to find out your zone if you know the average minimal temperature in your area.
Find out the average last frost date for your area. This date is just an average, so the actual last frost can be weeks before or even weeks after this date. There are some cold-weather plants that can be put in the garden before the average last frost date, but most plants need to be planted after this date.
Plant the right crops for the right season. There will always be some overlap among growing seasons and what spring temperatures are in one climate, can be summer temperatures in another. Use the following as a loose guide as to when you should plant the garden.
• Spring — beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, lettuce and salad greens, peas, radishes, Swiss chard, annual herbs such as cilantro and dill, perennial herbs such as mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
• Summer — beans (bush, lima, and pole), corn (all varieties), cucumbers, eggplant, melons, okra, peppers, squash (winter and summer), tomatoes, herbs such as basil.
• Fall and winter — beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce and other salad greens, parsnips, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips, herbs such as parsley and cilantro.
To get seeds and plants for your garden try your local farmers market and feed stores first. These are both essential businesses and hopefully are still open in your area. Next, try the garden center of your local grocery store or big box store. Lastly, you can order seeds online, just know that many suppliers are backed up or even sold out.
If you’re new to gardening, start small. Planting is only the first part of growing a garden, it must also be watered and weeded regularly. It’s better to grow a small garden that is well-tended than a large garden that is drowning in weeds. The focus needs to be feeding your family — not sowing large amounts of seeds.
Tend to your garden regularly. Gardening is not a one and done activity. You’ll need to walk through your garden daily if possible. During this walk, you’ll notice if there are weeds that need to be pulled and can quickly do that before they get big. You’ll notice if a plant is struggling because of pest damage or disease, and you can deal with it early. If it does not rain at least an inch during the week, you’ll need to water the garden. During the heat of the summer, the garden will need to be watered several times a week.
Use all of what you grow. There is a temptation when the harvest is really coming in to let some go to waste. It’s just human nature to not value the little when we have a lot. Instead of tossing the carrot tops, use them to make pesto or dehydrate them to make a free green powder for smoothies, or chop and sauté them with onions and grated carrots to serve as a side dish. If you grew more than your family can eat fresh, preserve excess or share with neighbors.
Using the traditional victory garden model is a great, no-nonsense way to grow food to feed your family. The victory garden plant lists that the USDA published in the 1940s are a great starting place for anyone who wants to begin their own vegetable garden. Once you get the basics down, you can easily branch out and try new things.
Are you using these traditional victory garden resources to grow more food on your property? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!