Some Bostonians celebrate the Fenway Victory Gardens in much the same way as baseball fans revere nearby Fenway Park.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
To encourage better gardening, competitive exhibits open to all victory gardeners were held in Boston's Horticultural Hall from 1943 to 1945.
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.
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.
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.