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Gardens of Brooklyn Part II: Victory Gardens

Jul 19, 2011 3:55 PM | 0 comments

In the 1930s, Relief Gardens, also called Subsistence Gardens, run by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped hundreds of Brooklyn Families put food on the table in the depths of the Great Depression. In 1944, President Roosevelt called on all Americans to grow gardens to help compensate for the increased food requirements of forces at the fronts during World War II.  The Civilian Defense Volunteer Office (CDVO) encouraged people to plant vegetable gardens, facilitating the use of vacant land, and educating gardeners into the mysteries of crop rotations and companion plantings as well as canning and preserving. By 1945, 50,000 Victory Gardeners were cultivating 17,000 gardens in Brooklyn's backyards, vacant lots and city land.

Victory Garden Girls--Borough president Cashmore receives the first of 200,000 garden work sheets and 2,000 posters from two members of staff of the Namm store, Jean Azzaro and Edna Stark, who are going to be Victory Gardeners (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 21, 1943) Photograph by Bernard Ravitz.

The benefits of having a borough full of gardeners in wartime were clear--few to no transportation costs, availability of healthy food allowing reduction of food rationing points on some items; reduced pressure on commercial gardeners which were working at full capacity; and improved morale for those working to support their families and communities in a time of war. Best bets for city gardens included foliage turnips (for greens), New Zealand spinach, onions (from sets), leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, radishes, beets, and people were encouraged to cultivate even a "pocket-handkerchief" of ground. The images below show that some of the plots were considerably bigger than pocket handkerchiefs.

Soil testing--Students of Manual Training High School make preliminary tests of Brooklyn soil as part of service to Victory Gardeners in school laboratory. Left to right: Donald Softness, Caroline Konig, Dorothy Pietaro and Bertram Wiener. Ten Brooklyn high schools are participating in the service.  (Brooklyn Daily Eagle Apr 7, 1943)

Everyone, it seemed, had a hand in the effort.  Chemistry students carried out soil testing, companies offered plots of land, grandmothers organized groups of teens, Namms store offered free lectures on subjects such as "Preparations for planting," and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden too offered free courses. Some gardens were cooperatively run, such as the 1.5 acre site at 99th Street and 3rd Avenue. The CDVO streamlined the process for detecting the owners of vacant lots and approaching them for permission to use the land. Boy Scout troops grew bushels of corn; the orphans of the Pride of Judea Children's Home planted seeds and tended the growing plants; the Parents Association of P.S. 180 worked on a garden with their children; John R. Mee of the East New York CDVO gave instruction on planting and cultivating to 25 boys and girls at his home every Saturday; and all this activity produced mammoth crops. One article from July 1945 estimates that about 230 acres were under cultivation.

King of the Victory Gardeners in 1944 was James Galati of 812 Avenue U,  who raised an assortment of vegetables on a 25 x 25 plot, including 5lb eggplants and tomato stalks carrying 70 fruits. His green thumbs won him a $100 war bond.

On the job--Mrs Louis Sternberg of Brooklyn CDVO helps turn the ground in community garden at 17th Ave.[sic: probably E. 17th St] and Avenue J. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 20, 1943)

Victory gardens will soon be growing on this land, part of several acres which the Brooklyn Union Gas Company has made available to its employees. Paul Bauman, company chauffeur, shows he can manage a horse and plow as well as a 10-ton truck...(Brooklyn Daily Eagle Apr 11, 1943)

Part of a bumper crop--Mrs Elka Israel, chairman of the West Flatbush C.D.V.O. Victory Garden Committee, displays a head of cabbage grown in the community plot made available by Fontbonne Hall. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle  Aug 26, 1945)

So succesful were the Victory Gardens that in 1947 President Truman urged that the Victory Gardeners should continue their work in peacetime. "The value of gardening in building strong bodies, healthy minds and happy people has never been greater. Today we need physical strength...we need moral strength to combat inflation and other economic dislocations; we need spiritual strength to see us through...trying days...We need relaxation, happiness and congenial relationships among our people. These needs can be met in great part by continuing a program which involves the participation of millions of Americans in home gardening."  A message for our times, perhaps?

Materials from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle photograph and morgue clipping collections and Youtube were used for this post.