Victory movement: Patriotic gardening strategy takes root again

Karen McVay has a self-sufficient lifestyle on her simple 15-acre farm outside of Pomona. Her garden is within steps from her house. The practice of growing food from garden to table harkens back to the post-World War II days of victory gardening. While inspiration for the self-sufficient garden has changed, it is nonetheless a growing concept in tough economic times.

Karen McVay has a self-sufficient lifestyle on her simple 15-acre farm outside of Pomona. The remains of her garden still has some marigold plants (left) and broccoli plants.

McVay cans her own fruits and vegetables for year-round use.

Karen McVay also raises chickens for their eggs.

What Karen McVay can’t can, she will bag and freeze.

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

— Thomas Jefferson, Aug. 23, 1785

Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer in the art of growing plants, the wealth of knowledge that flora can offer and the self-sufficiency acquired by honing such skills.

In 2009, we might want to take a look back at gardening in order to move forward. During World War I and World War II, the United States government asked its citizens to plant gardens to maintain the war effort. These gardens were coined the names “victory gardens,” “liberty gardens” and “war gardens.”

Because the nation’s allies had suffered food shortages, American leaders wanted to prepare their country for hard times. The call to action was met with fervor as millions planted gardens. In 1943, Americans planted more than 20 million victory gardens, and their harvest accounted for nearly a third of all the vegetables eaten in the U.S. that year.

The government emphasized the family and community spirit involved, that it wasn’t drudgery and toiling but a pastime and a national duty. It aimed to encourage residents to use less fuel, conserving it for the war. Even Eleanor Roosevelt joined in the cause and created a White House victory garden to generate positive press.

Peanut butter, tomatoes, cilantro, spinach and even baby formula have all been the more recent food scares that unsuspecting consumers have faced. The notion that these mass-produced foods are unhealthy and possibly even harmful certainly is catalyst enough to start taking control over what we put on our tables. Combine those “risks” we take in trusting our foods to an outside source and then couple that with the idea that the average food today travels a whooping 1,500 miles from farm to table. The energy alone in processing the food, packaging the food and then transporting the food is astronomical. Now, imagine traveling in feet rather than miles, fresh from your garden plot to the table.

The victory garden concept may be an old one, but its merits are vast. This bygone experiment of self-sufficiency and an intimate knowledge of where food comes from might be worth taking a gander at again.

Karen McVay, who lives near Pomona, around 30 miles southwest of Lawrence, has been working toward a self-sufficient lifestyle for four years now. She explains how her interest was piqued.

“I became interested in the topic of sustainable living during and because of my residence on two different islands,” she says. “While living abroad, it was not uncommon to have boats be delayed and the grocery shelves became empty. Soil was also an issue. Either due to overworking the soil and not giving anything back, or Mother Nature herself creating inhospitable terrain as in the case of lava flow — all led to my interest in soil fertility. I realized how I’d taken my food source for granted my whole life.”

McVay grows just about anything you can imagine, from vegetables to fruit trees. She also has taken the concept a step further by raising chickens for eggs. After living on an island and being dependent and vulnerable, when she moved to Kansas she began to educate herself on what grows here, about the loss of vitamins that mass-produced foods suffer from and the only way to give a vegetable more vitamins is by feeding the soil.

“It is worth the effort, but it is definitely a labor of love.” McVay says. “The payoff is the quality of food which time and time again blows me away in the taste category. Being able to walk one minute to a garden, pick a vegetable, eat it raw is a whole different food experience that I’ve become addicted to.”

McVay makes it clear that you don’t need a lot of space to grow ample amounts of food. If room is an issue, consider peppering in vegetables to your perennial gardens, use containers for savories or approach a community garden.

Jessi Asmussen is co-coordinator of Lawrence Sustainability Network’s Support for Local Urban Gardeners (SLUG), which is an all-volunteer group assisting both new gardeners and old pros.

“I am aware of at least 10 community gardens throughout Lawrence,” she says. “Some community gardens use the ‘share the labor, share the produce method.’ Other community gardens are divided into plots, and each plot is assigned and cared for by an individual or family. Many have communal work days, so you can meet your neighbors, work side by side and share information. The compact plot is a good example of how much food really can be grown in a small area.”

Asmussen explains the reasons to become a self-sufficient gardener: “Due to fluctuations in fuel prices, an unstable economy and climate change, the future of our food supply and distribution is unstable. Not only is there a need for more people to start growing food, we also need existing food gardeners to share their knowledge with beginners.”

Not only do the current political and economical upheavals directly affect our food costs, but Asmussen thinks more Americans could use a basic crash course in Horticulture 101.

“The victory gardens were popular because growing your own food was one way to save money and resources, and it was something most people were able to do,” she says. “Since then, many Americans have become unfamiliar with the basic skills needed to grow, preserve and even cook our own food. Community gardens are a great way to begin reconnecting with fundamental food knowledge.”

— Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.