Massachusetts

How Victory Gardens Helped Win World War II

Some Bostonians celebrate the Fenway Victory Gardens in much the same way as baseball fans revere nearby Fenway Park.

A plot at the Richard D. Parker Memorial Fenway Victory Gardens

A plot at the Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens.

Formally known as the Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens, they are one of 20 million victory gardens planted during World War II across the United States. The sprang up on school grounds, in vacant city lots, in apartment window boxes and on rooftops. By 1944 victory gardens produced 40 percent of all vegetables grown in the United States.

Today, only two victory gardens survive: the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston and the Dowling Community Gardens in Minneapolis.

Patriotic Victory Gardens

U.S. government poster promoting victory gardens

U.S. government poster promoting victory gardens

It was patriotic to have a victory garden during World War II. The U.S. government promoted the gardens to build community spirit.

The government also wanted to impart to people on the Home Front the sense that they were contributing to the war effort. They were.

Ad from The Pawtucket Valley Daily Times

Ad from The Pawtucket Valley Daily Times

The men and women fighting the war needed a heavy diet. U.S. farmers, however, had less labor and fewer replacement parts for equipment to produce it. The military needed trucks and trains for the war.

Malaysian tin supplies were cut off, further hampering food distribution. The armed forces needed the little tin available to carry food to the battlefront. The U.S. government rationed food, but the allotment of canned goods wouldn't feed a family. And the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables fell short of demand.

Plus, food cost a lot. Many Rhode Islanders, for example, couldn’t afford the A&P’s tomatoes at the exorbitant price of 19 cents a pound advertised in the Pawtucket Valley Daily Times.

Women's Land Army members filled in for the 3 million farmworkers who went to war or the defense industry. And they also planted victory gardens.

Sunday Gardeners

Ad from The Pawtucket Valley Daily Times

Ad from The Pawtucket Valley Daily Times

Community leaders like University of Rhode Island professor Ernest K. Thomas advised so-called 'Sunday gardeners' on how to plant and maintain victory gardens. They ran ads and held photo opportunities in local newspapers.

The local gardeners were helped by the federal government's massive propaganda effort to persuade civilians to grow victory gardens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture churned out how-to pamphlets, recipes, posters and handbooks for local leaders. Agricultural companies gave tips on how to make seedlings grow in different climates.

victory garden food is fighting

Above, a World War II poster promoted victory gardens. The government advised growing tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, beets and peas. And for the first time, Swiss chard and kohlrabi made their appearance in many U.S. gardens because they were so easy to grow.

Local committees helped identify land for victory gardens and volunteer gardeners. In Boston, Parks and Recreation Department employees and teachers from the Boston School Department supervised the city's 49 community gardens -- including one on Boston Common.

The vacant lots could be hard to till. Many, like the seven-acre Fenway Victory Gardens, sat on landfill. The early gardeners struggled to pull deep-rooted weeds and came up with carloads of bricks, parts of boilers, large rocks, paving and building rubble.

Victory garden in front of Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Victory garden in front of Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

To encourage better gardening, competitive exhibits open to all victory gardeners were held in Boston's Horticultural Hall from 1943 to 1945.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

A Vermont Victory Garden

Jane Atwood Barlow was a high school student living in Larchmont, N.Y., during those war years. She recalled visiting her aunt's victory garden in World War II Remembered:

Toward the middle of August, Mother managed to persuade the Larchmont rationing board that we could save food and contribute to the war effort if she and the children visited her sister's family, the Arkleys, who had a vast "victory garden" in Burlington, Vermont. The board granted a small extra allowance of gasoline for the trip. … Two weeks later we returned from Burlington with jar after jar of green beans, beets, carrots, tomatoes, corn and other vegetables; there may also have been some fruits, such as berries or applesauce. These all helped during the following winter, when the impact of the War on our daily lives became clear even to us youngsters. It was clearest in the acute shortages of food.

10.Sec. of Agriculture Claude Wickard and Parks Commissioner William Long with Daniel Webster's plow, Boston Common 1944. Photo courtesy National Archives.

Photo courtesy National Archives.

By 1944, strict rationing had loosened, but the government kept up the drumbeat for victory gardens. Above, the photo shows U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard and the Boston Parks Commissioner plowed a furrow on Boston Common. They actually used Daniel Webster's plow.

As the war centered on the Pacific theater in 1945, rationing picked up again. It didn't end until June 1947, well after the war ended.

Fenway Gardeners

When World War II wound down, the Fenway victory gardeners felt sad and frustrated that their community garden would eventually make way for something else. At a meeting of the Harvard Club in 1944, an informal group started what became known as the Fenway Garden Society. It was headed by members of the Boston Public School Department and community leaders including Richard D. Parker.

For decades, Parker and a sturdy group of fellow gardeners fought off efforts to turn the Fenway Victory Gardens into a school, a hospital or a parking lot.

Richard D. Parker gardened until his death in 1975. The gardens were renamed in his honor. And sometime this summer, the gardeners will uphold their tradition of giving off a cheer at the plucking of the first tomato.

With thanks to Mark Somos for his invaluable help in researching this story. Keep an eye out for two more stories about victory gardens in World War I and Pingree's Potato Patch Plan. This story about the victory gardens of World War II was updated in 2018.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Laura A Macaluso

    Laura A Macaluso

    February 16, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Another great story with great pictures!

  2. Laura A Macaluso

    Laura A Macaluso

    February 16, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    Yes, indeed, it’s been quite a winter–and it’s finally hitting us here in central Virginia today.

  3. Molly Landrigan

    Molly Landrigan

    February 16, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    An English couple on my street in NH planted a Victory garden in the shape of a V with the Morse code three dot dash V at the bottom all in red, white and blue. I guess it was a mixture of vegetables and flowers…..very pretty and admired by all the neighbors.

  4. Lee Henderson Martinez

    Lee Henderson Martinez

    February 16, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    This is the one at my father’s place in Weston, Mass.

  5. Donna Petrucci

    Donna Petrucci

    February 17, 2015 at 10:33 am

    loved the information..and the drafties doing the plowing!!!

  6. Donna Petrucci

    Donna Petrucci

    February 17, 2015 at 10:33 am

    loved the information..and the drafties doing the plowing!!!

  7. Pingback: Flashback Photos: The School Garden Army Feeds a Hungry Nation During World War I - New England Historical Society

  8. Pingback: A Maine Shoemaker's Potato Patch Plan Feeds the Poor - New England Historical Society

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