I was reflecting on Memorial Day and “The Greatest Generation,” which includes my dad, uncles and all who served in the armed services. I also remember my mother talking about the victory gardens she and others planted to do their part in the war effort on the homefront.
I have a University of Missouri agricultural extension service circular dated February 1943 titled “Victory Gardens for Town and City Families.” I have many of these old, hard-copy files that are full of useful information and history, but I worry they will be cast aside by the Internet or “informational” generation of extension workers.
In the circular, author J.W.C. Anderson urges every family that has an area or open space with fertile soil to use it to produce every possible pound of food. He said that in doing so, they can supply themselves with food essential to their health and vigor; provide the highest quality food for their own use; assure themselves of a constant year-round supply; reduce living costs; leave commercial supplies for essential uses that cannot be substituted; and relieve transportation facilities of hauling of food that can be produced at home. The points sound like many of the arguments made today for vegetable gardening.
The publication goes on to talk about the kind of area and the type of soil needed to grow good vegetables and how to add organic matter to tight soils or loose soils to improve them. Anderson talks about handling the soil for greatest production. These statements still ring true:
• “Organic matter such as barnyard manure, leaves, rotted straw or other plant refuse is the greatest need of most garden soils. It adds plant food, helps to hold moisture and improves the physical condition of the soil.”
• “In addition to the organic matter, apply a complete commercial fertilizer such as 4-16-4 or 4-12-4 at a minimum rate of one pound per 40 square feet.”
• The publication talks about incorporating the fertilizer in or “banding it on either side of the row, three inches from the row and at least three inches deep. (Use one pound per 25 feet of row).”
• Lime is mentioned: “If lime has never been added to this soil, scatter the limestone at the rate of 1 pound per 10 square feet.”
The next section is about what vegetables to grow. Anderson makes his recommendations: “Choose the vegetables that will produce the greatest amount of the most nutritious food from the area. The following list of vegetables is suggested in the order they may be expected to give the maximum production: tomatoes, bush beans, spinach, peas, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, mustard, Swiss chard, turnip greens, onions and beets.” The publication shows a victory garden chart outlining maximum production and a continuous supply of the highest quality food throughout the season.
As in any good publication on gardening, the author recommends a planting plan made on paper. Does this sound familiar to recommendations made by other gardening publications? The planting commences March 15 and runs through Sept. 1. It is neat to look at the varieties recommended back then and note that some of them are still recommended today. There is a column for approximate planting per person, which is handy and is included in many recent publications. Other information included is distance between rows, inches between plants in the row, depth to plant and days from planting to eating stage. It’s all useful information for the home gardener.
There is a section on planting and cultivating that lists gardening tools such as spading fork, hoe, rake, yardstick, 50 feet of heavy cord and two 12-inch stakes, hand duster or sprayer, insecticides and, if the garden is more than 1,000 square feet, a garden plow or cultivator.
The author recommends “purchasing good seed from reliable seed companies. Bargain seeds from unknown sources often results in all the work of fertilizing, plowing, seedbed preparation and planting with no returns.” A truer statement was never uttered. Also, “use home or locally grown disease-free cabbage and tomato plants. Weak, stunted or diseased plants, like poor seed, are expensive even if they originally cost nothing.”
I like the section on cultivation: “The purpose of cultivation is to keep down weeds. Cultivate when weeds are sprouting and just coming through the ground. They are easily destroyed in that stage. Avoid deep cultivation. It destroys the roots of the vegetables and hinders their growth. Do not work the soil when it is wet.”
Control of insects is mentioned, and the materials recommended are some of the old ones that I recognized and used as a young man growing up, such as lead arsenate and calcium arsenate. They are gone from the varieties available to today’s gardener.
In the final section, there is a good lesson on harvesting the different vegetables and canning or freezing to preserve the vegetables for use in the winter months. On Memorial Day, it is appropriate to reflect not only on the sacrifice of men and women in the military, but on those throughout our country’s history and also on the victory gardens that helped supply food to our population during World War II.
Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist in Penn State’s department of plant science. Email him at email@example.com.