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A 1942 poster encourages American citizens to growth their own food.Galerie Bilderwelt / Bridgeman Images

Debi Goodwin is a former CBC journalist and an author. Her latest book is A Victory Garden for Trying Times.

“We’ve got to dig in our backyard for carrots, beans and ‘taters, we’ve got to dig both long and hard as garden cultivators.”

That rhyme, from an American ditty, was sung in the First World War, as part of a campaign intent on mobilizing “soldiers of the soil” to turn backyards and public spaces into vegetable beds, or war gardens.

The campaign to fight the enemy with vegetables had already started in Great Britain where the need for food was urgent. The German navy had blocked or destroyed ships carrying needed stocks at a time when Britain imported half of its food. On the other side of the Atlantic, even before the United States entered the war, president Woodrow Wilson saw that American food would be needed to help Britain as well as Europe, where land had been destroyed and farms abandoned. Believing that without food aid, chaos would destroy the peace when it came, he set up a chain of organizations to persuade Americans to conserve food – especially wheat and meat – and to grow their own produce.

Perhaps the most charismatic leader on Wilson’s team was a rich timberman named Charles Lathrop Pack, who took on the task of getting Americans into war gardens in their yards or on available “slacker” land. He issued how-to booklets, brought the media on side and created posters with fierce-looking vegetables as ammunition and slogans like “Sow the Seeds of Victory.” His key message: Gardening was a patriotic duty. But he also understood that people needed to feel they were doing “something tangible in the struggle,” when they had little control of what was happening on the battlefield. His strategy worked. By the end of the war, Americans had created five million vegetables patches. And war gardens had become victory gardens.

Both the need for food and the patriotic fervour returned in the Second World War. The British, now importing even more of their food, created a “Dig For Victory” campaign. Once the Americans entered the war, governments at all levels held conferences on encouraging more people to garden and educating them on everything from plant selection to bottling fruit. By the end of that war, Americans would claim that 40 per cent of their food was produced in 20 million gardens by women, men and children on the home front.

In Canada, however, the government actively discouraged amateur gardeners at the start of the Second World War, concerned they would buy up supplies needed for the military effort. Homeowners and public groups, experiencing the constraints of rationing, went ahead anyway and protested until the government relented and threw itself behind a victory garden campaign in 1943. By the end of the war, Canadians had created about 200,000 such gardens.

While victory garden campaigns disappeared after the war, their legacy did not. They gave rise to urban community gardens, supplying fresh produce to those who couldn’t afford it, and they popped up as survivalist gardens at times of economic uncertainty and fear, such as the oil crisis in the 1970s and the hoarding period before Y2K.

And now with fear over a virus, it’s time for another round of victory gardens.

After the U.S. joined the Second World War, governments at all levels held conferences on encouraging more people to garden.Library and Archives Canada

In today’s battle against COVID-19, doctors, nurses and support staff are our front line and the scientists working on vaccines are our code-breakers. Governments aren’t asking much of us on the home front except to keep our distance. “We came to work for you. Please stay home for us,” is the message from the medical community. But flattening the curve doesn’t have to mean staying flat on the couch. While the focus of government, scientists and the medical community has to be on beating this virus back, it’s important to also remember that the repercussions on our finances and our mental health could outlast the pandemic. In fact, it’s essential that people feel they are doing some good for themselves, their families, their communities and the planet.

I’ll soon be planting my victory garden. It’ll be my second one. Four years ago, I turned to my garden to save me in the trying times of my husband’s cancer treatments and his death. As I worked I felt as though I was fighting an enemy I couldn’t see, that I was controlling something when I couldn’t control the fate of my beloved. That I was “carrying on.”

This year, I see my garden as a place where I can find self-sufficiency and ease my anxiety. I won’t be alone this time. How-to websites are getting record hits. The head of the giant seed company, Burpee, said they’ve had a “tsunami” of interest, bigger than anything he’s ever witnessed. And other seed companies relied upon by Canadian gardeners such as Stokes Seeds, Heritage Harvest Seeds and Vesey Seeds have all been overwhelmed with panic buying.

Fear once again is driving us. We fear handling the produce in grocery stores; we fear that enough food won’t make it to store shelves to handle at all. But we can do something to fight that fear. Dig a patch in your backyards if you have one, plant tomatoes and green beans in pots with trellises on balconies, seek a way to help local growers who may be affected by the slow arrival of migrant workers. Create a seed or seedlings exchange. Share your crop. Find a community garden project where jurisdictions allow. Or start a campaign to use vacant lands where novices who might fail on their own can feel the pride of growing under the supervision of more experienced gardeners (while working in shifts, to allow proper physical distancing). Like the Canadian gardeners in the Second World War, we don’t need the government to motivate us. And in the age of social media and YouTube videos, we can find all the information that we require. Let governments concentrate on the big issues of fighting this virus: isolation, testing, getting equipment and safety gear for our health care workers and how to take care of the economy.

Spring is coming to most of Canada. Get out in the garden, distract yourself with hours of labour and soothe yourself with the knowledge that nature’s cycles are continuing.

Gardening guru Marjorie Harris shares her favourite plants for apartment and condo dwellers who want to start a potted garden on their balconies

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