Urban Gardening

Tending a backyard vegetable patch or growing herbs on your windowsill are by no means new ideas, but it’s impossible to ignore the recent explosion in popularity of urban gardening. Transcending mere trend, gardening is once again in the mainstream of modern living, even – or perhaps especially – for city dwellers. As during World War II, when Victory Gardeners were digging their way to produce during wartime, home gardening has once again taken on a feeling of urgency, as well as providing a frugal avenue toward self-sufficiency.

Vegetable attacking Swastika, advertising for a Victory Garden

A vintage ad for planting Victory Gardens.

People are returning to home gardening by growing fruits and vegetables on allotments, in community gardens, in pots and planting boxes on apartment balconies and roofs – and returning in droves. While there might be some amongst us growing potatoes and hoarding bottled water in preparation for World War III, the resurgence of urban gardening differs from the Victory Garden movement of the 1940s. Unlike the patriotic zeal that fueled citizens to roll up their sleeves several decades ago, urban gardeners of today are digging toward a different kind of freedom: freedom from reliance on tasteless, long traveled  fruits and vegetables;  freedom from contentious petrochemicals for fertilizer; freedom from mass produced agriculture; and ultimately, the freedom garnered from a return to self-reliance and the pioneer spirit that was once a pillar of American life.

Poster for Victory Garden "Grow It Yourself"

“Grow It Yourself” slogan for a Victory Garden.

Following the cessation of the war, mass interest in home gardening as a national duty, as well as government support, dried up almost instantly. The post-war shift in agriculture from small and local to large-scale, monoculture meant the increased use of chemical pesticides, shrinking of varieties and genetic modification. Henry Ford was on to something when he proclaimed: “No unemployment insurance can be compared to an alliance between man and a plot of land.” But following WWII, gardening was relegated to a quaint hobby.

I grew up in a family of suburban gardeners and always admired my parents’ ability to grow their own tomatoes, the smell of which, as any enthusiast can tell you, is intoxicating. Cucumbers, rhubarb, pumpkins – all possessing color and texture indescribable to those who have never stepped foot on the loose earth of a home garden. The shapes and sizes, even its mere existence, all dependent on the whim of Mother Nature and the sweat of your brow.

War gardens for Victory poster.

Healthy and patriotic: a poster promoting the benefits of planting a Victory Garden.

I inherited an appreciation for the home-grown from my family yet I only recently broke ground in my first urban garden – after many apathetic years of imported supermarket produce. And while the farmer’s market – now commonplace in every major city – has answered the growing call for farm-fresh, organic produce, the goods on display at these tantalizing markets have always represented an indulgent treat, something of a demonstration of what I’d like to eat, yet couldn’t always afford.

Family stands in their garden during World War II.

Sowing the seeds for the next generation, a family stands in their garden during World War II.

Given the low cost of a pack of seeds, growing your own produce makes economic sense as well as taking the mystery out of our food’s often dubious origins. Yet, what lies at the heart of home gardening, as with any homesteading tradition such as sewing clothes or food preservation, is the feeling of accomplishment that the novice will soon discover upon the emergence of their first seedling or the succulent taste of the summer’s first berry. The delicious, satisfying joy of the fruits of your labor will stick in your memory like the juice running down your chin.

There is community spirit to be nourished through urban gardening, familiar to anyone who has made friends over the allotment fence. The sense of camaraderie gleaned from the nostalgic propaganda material from the Victory Garden era is of course appealing, harkening us back to our agrarian roots. But more immediate than that is the quiet sense of accomplishment and wonder that can be achieved on a windowsill or a fire escape.

FURTHER READING: - David Josar. “Urban gardeners nuture nature in Detroit”, Detroit News, April 24, 2009.

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