In 1947, two years after world war II ended there were 20 million small gardens in the United States. They provided 40% of the produce in the American Diet. The gardens started during the depression. During the war, they were called "Victory Gardens." Even the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, had a garden.
I grew up in a garden; we grew tomatoes and zucchini. By age seven, I knew how to remove the suckers from the tomato vines, how to pull weeds and how to pinch off the multiple yellow blossoms. Blossoms had to be 4 inches from each other to get the largest fruits.
The people in Kirkwood, Missouri liked large tomatoes and zucchinis. When the depression started in 1929, the city fathers' got together and declared that "No one in Kirkwood would go hungry." They organized the town and, "though," as my grandfather said, "the whole damn town of 18, 000 didn't have $500 between them," no one went hungry.
Next door to me was the lettuce lady. In her flowerpots, she grew all the lettuces, spinach, chards and greens. She used flowerpots to keep the snails and caterpillars off her plants. When we wanted to make sandwiches or a salad, my mother would send me off with a scissors to Mrs. Ball's house and I would carefully snip off the outer leaves and bring them home to wash and put on the sandwich or in the salad. The shortest food chain in the world. I never saw lettuce in a ball 'till I was a teenager and a supermarket came to town. What's more, Mrs. Ball just loved my tomatoes and zucchini. I was so proud when I took them to her. They were my greatest accomplishments in my young life. Across the street was the onion lady. She grew every onion, chive, shallot and garlic known to mankind at the time. She sprouted them in her basement and people picked them up for their own gardens in the spring. Grandpa Van raised chickens and rabbits and had fruit trees - apples, apricots and a cherry tree that was in the back of the chicken yard. Every time a cherry fell off the tree, the chickens would race over to eat it. Gustof Franks had the two cows and we traded him eggs for milk and butter.
No one threw anything away. Table scraps and other uneaten food would go in the "slop" bucket. Neighbors came by and threw them to the chickens while they picked up a few eggs. The tops of carrots and lettuce scraps and greens went to the rabbits.
There was a trading system. A basket of apples could be traded for a skinned rabbit or a basket of grapes or apricots. An apple pie could be traded for milk or eggs. Another man grew corn. He had about 10 rows and he cracked some for my grandfather to feed to the chickens. He also gave it to the women who headed the canning committee. For his fresh corn, he could get canned peaches, applesauce, canned corn, potatoes or apricot syrup. Oh yes, we had potato people. They had raised beds and raised potatoes better than any I've ever tasted in my life. And there were peas, beans, and herbs. Everyone grew something, raised something and traded something. My other grandfather, although a natural stone quarryman, also kept beehives. A pint of honey went a long way in trade, as did a full honeycomb. Once every two months our butcher would take some meat or fish: pig, calf, chickens or rabbits into Saint Louis and trade for salt, flour, coffee, paraffin and soap.
And then there was hunting. The men went hunting on Saturday and whatever they shot, quail, rabbits, possum or deer, was eaten on Sunday. There was also the Merrimac and Mississippi river to fish in. Catfish, Sunfish, and Perch. They could be traded for canned fruits, vegetables, eggs, you name it.
I don't think I ate an orange till I was almost twelve, after the war, and I marveled at this miraculous fruit, and then I was even more astounded with bananas. I was so used to this culture that after the war when I heard that the Greeks and the Russians and the Chinese were starving, I wondered, innocently why they didn't plant gardens. Even today, when I hear that one in 8 children goes to school hungry, when I hear pleas for food donations for the poor, I wonder why we don't have community gardens. Instead of talking on phones or watching TV or playing video games, couldn't the children use their energy to weed the garden and harvest the food?
So, plant a garden and tell your neighbor to plant a garden and share. Mobile Home Parks and Apartment Complexes could create community gardens. Why waste the gas to have your tomatoes shipped in from California or Mexico when they can be grown just as easily in your backyard and taste much better picked off the vine.
They say dark days lie ahead for the economy. But, whatever happens, we don't have to go hungry. We can feed ourselves. Come on my Beloved Country, let's get organized. Let's start digging. Let's do something economically beneficial, wonderful, brilliant and powerful. Let's all plant gardens.
- Shirley Braverman
(essay & photos from various sources)