Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Victory Gardens

The Garden Warriors of 1942 (Part 2)

Winning Through in '43

by Shirley Buswell (C) Copyright

This article is reprinted from a 1980 issue of City Farmer (Vol. 3, Number 2), a newspaper we printed in the early days before WWW publishing. We reprint it now on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Up to the end of 1942, as we said in our last issue, the federal government was not at all keen on the Victory Garden campaign. We learned, from the Public Archives of Canada:

"Gardening on such a small scale invited inefficiency in its (i.e. the government's) opinion, due to a wastage of seed, fertilizer, tools, etc. and lead to overproduction of some crops. They adhered to this opinion despite scores of letters received urging the Federal Department of Agriculture to support Victory Gardens, and despite the very active Victory Garden movement in the United States of America.... By 1943, however, problems of shortages of food supplies for the Allies (although not domestically in Canada itself) inclined the federal government towards Victory Gardens." These are the words of Terry Cook, Archivist, National Resource Records, Public Records Division.

Something decisive, apparently, happened to the bureaucratic mind in January 1943, because in early February, James G. Gardiner, Federal Minister of Agriculture, a man who had never encouraged a Victory Garden campaign and who, furthermore, had actively discouraged private involvement in the administration of it should such a campaign be instituted wrote to a Mr. F.W. Warren of Hamilton, Ontario, in response to Warren's offer of his services to the Government:

"As a result of deliberations by the Agricultural Supplies Board and the Foods Administration Board of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board" (the Federal Department of Agriculture had decided) "... to advise the Provincial Departments that it was desirable to sponsor community garden and backyard garden campaigns during the 1943 growing season."

Warren, said Gardiner, should contact his local Department of Agriculture for more details, because "... ever since the beginning of the war, provincial governments have been desirous of having the responsibility of working out actual production programmes within their respective provinces in view of their agricultural representative services, and so on."

By Gardiner's own admission, the discussion had been going on for almost four years!

Perhaps, really, there were some good reasons for the delay in official approval of the Victory Garden campaign, reasons which it is not given to us to understand from the historical perspective of almost forty years. Perhaps bureaucratic federal/provincial wrangling was not the principal one. Perhaps it was not even that (as the archivist has pointed out) Canadians were not considered responsible enough by the politicians to handle valuable supplies of seed and fertilizer - after all Americans, Britons, Australians and New Zealanders had been growing Victory Gardens for years, with official blessing. Perhaps it was not the government mind that had changed. It might have been the government heart.

A very dark phase of the war in Europe was passing. Some people could already imagine victory - and peace. The idea of it brought a new fear. With Europe in chaos, with millions of its working-age population killed, maimed, or malnourished to the point of chronic ill-health, how could the first postwar crops be planted, cultivated and harvested? Obviously the more food Canadians could produce for themselves, the more could be released for shipment overseas.

Now, with Government approval, the Victory Garden campaign was at last underway. The National Film Board made a series of films on nutrition. The Canadian Nutrition Program was launched nation-wide. The government drew up "Canada's Official Food Rules" Canadian Horticulture and Home ran a monthly series of articles on Victory Gardening; seed company advertisements were geared to the concept.

Then a pamphlet called "The Wartime Garden" was issued by Gardiner's department. "There is a greater need for home food production of vegetables now than at any time during the war. Every available bit of land that is suitable should be put into a garden. Those with experience should help their neighbours who wish to start..." it began.

After all this, public involvement was instantaneous, and enthusiastic. The Housewives' League of British Columbia (according to a report in the Vancouver News-Herald of February 22, 1943) requested City Hall to authorize the use of its heavy machinery to clear vacant lots. "They'll want us to weed them next," snorted a holdout alderman, C. Millar. By April of that year, Victory Garden contests had been announced, and by the end of the month, the newspaper reported, "If all the Victory Gardens in British Columbia were lumped together, they would occupy a space approximately three times the size of Vancouver's great Stanley Park." At that time, the paper said, there were 1425 gardens on city-owned lots.

As fall came, Vancouver residents looked for ways to supplement the produce they had taken from their back yards. Many tried poultry raising. If less than twelve chickens were involved, no permit needed to be applied for. But by November, A.J. Harrison, the City Building and Zoning Secretary stated, he had received 87 applications from citizens who wanted to keep more than that number.

1944 approached, and someone added up some figures. In 1943, the Vancouver papers reported, there were 209,200 Victory Gardens in Canada, and on the average they produced 550 lbs. of vegetables each. One gardener in seven was a city dweller. There were 15% more home gardeners than in 1942; 24% more than 1940.

The number of gardens in Vancouver, including New Westminster, Burnaby, North and West Vancouver by the end of the year was 52,000; the value of the food they produced in the 1943 season was estimated (in the dollar value of the time) as $4 million.

After such successes, everyone hoped that the Victory Garden phenomenon wouldn't vanish. "The Horticultural Council has already started its 1944 campaign," stated the Province in an editorial dated December 4, 1943. "Allied statesmen have promised to feed the world in the few months before harvest immediately following the war... There will be more need for Victory Gardens... than at any other period in human history, for these first months of peace, if millions are not to starve..."

And as the dreadful photographs of "liberated" Europe began appearing in newspapers around the world, the truth of that statement was revealed. The photo showed not only the survivors of Nazi death camps, but the plight of hundreds of thousands of Europe's new generation of dispossessed: homeless, parentless children who lived by begging from Allied servicemen or by raiding whatever garbage cans they were lucky enough to find. War, the photos said, is fought against children. And its strongest weapon is starvation.

What is to be learned from the Victory Garden experience of 1943? First, we'd suggest, bearing in mind the tenacity of those who campaigned so assiduously in the face of bureaucratic indifference for official recognition of the movement, "Never give up!" But the second (and we can only hope that it doesn't take some world catastrophe to make us appreciate the truth of it), is that the closer to home we can bring our sources of food, the greater control over them we have.

Or, in the words of Vancouver's mayor in 1943, "the basic principle of the Victory Garden is self-reliance."

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Victory Garden Information on the Internet

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Revised January 19, 2003

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture