Home / Issues / From Necessity to Hobby: The Devolution of the Home Garden

From Necessity to Hobby: The Devolution of the Home Garden

My wife and I finished planting our vegetable garden last weekend. In roughly 600 square feet we laid down tomatoes of multiple variety, peas, beans, squash, berries, cucumbers, rhubarb, onions, spinach, lettuce, hot peppers, bell peppers, banana peppers, a lot of common herbs for cooking and even sweet corn. It’s an activity I look forward to every year. I have no idea where I got the motivation to start doing it. We never had a garden at home when I was a kid, though we spent a lot of time helping my grandparents take care of theirs. Either way it’s a load of fun that I could never give up.

I’m not an expert gardener, but we usually end up with enough produce to share with friends and family. It takes almost no effort, save for making sure it gets watered. Plus it gives me the chance to build something to add to it each spring. My son has learned a lot about the importance of growing our own food. He’s even picked up on the priceless value bees give to our daily lives by pollinating the plants we care for. I truly can’t say enough about it.

Each year we go through this spring planting ritual. Each year I look forward to tending the garden and reaping what we sow. And each year I ask myself, “Why don’t more people do this?”

During World War I and II, families were encouraged to grow “Victory Gardens” at home to provide fruits and vegetables to the household. Posters with influential characters like the one above, some with instructions on how to begin, made their way across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany. The purpose for encouraging a home garden was to indirectly relieve the drain on national food supplies put under duress to feed armies. Another perceived effect was it instilled a sense of gratification from the labor of caring for the garden itself. A morale booster, if you will.


Wasser Banner 2


Initially, the effort was frowned upon by the Department of Agriculture, fearing it would cause a decline in the food industry. But First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a garden on the White House lawn, and soon pamphlets and booklets were being distributed with information on how to grow a garden at home. Corporations took advantage of the opportunity by advertising their seeds as the best available. By 1943 an estimated 18 million gardens were producing one third of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. By 1944 it was an amount equal to all commercial production.

After the second world war ended so did government promotion for gardening. Domestic food use reverted back to citizens. Victory gardens fell by the wayside, eventually becoming a stereotype of rural households where farming was still the majority occupation. It wasn’t until the dawn of the internet when blogging created a small resurgence in home gardening. Then again, in 2009, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, led the way by planting a kitchen garden at the White House. The first “home garden” it had seen since Eleanor Roosevelt. Now, growing vegetables at home, creating rooftop gardens in urban centers, building DIY irrigation for raised beds, it’s all a huge fad.

I think about this seventy year rise and fall of home gardening and I wonder how it ever fell out of style in the first place. Of course the return of servicemen and women from the war played a part. As did the onset of the nuclear family, suburban developments, etc. But it seems to me a victory garden would be a tradition that transplanted with the rest of social migration. I suppose not having to grow your own food would become a status symbol, along with everything else “modern” in the late forties and early fifties.

Garden 2

Pershing & Co.

Considering food is one of the three main staples for survival, you’d think people would pay more attention to where it comes from and how it’s grown. I think it’s unfortunate that “organic” food has become a luxury for the wealthy. I’m not going to get into the nuances of the economics and why organically grown food is so much more expensive. But I think it’s important to consider, given what seems to be an incurable food shortage in the self-proclaimed wealthiest country in the world. If poverty is the excuse we assign to this problem we’re looking at it from the wrong angle. Having a low household income has nothing to do with the ability to raise vegetables and fruits. One can easily recognize that most families that grew victory gardens during WWII were impoverished by today’s standards, and even the contemporary measurement.

Let’s examine for a moment the shift away from the federal government promoting self-sustaining practices, and the sudden removal of that active encouragement. Certainly outside influences played a role in this policy change because if the military wasn’t going to purchase goods from farmers someone had to pick up the bill. It was a shift focused on corporate needs, not social economics. Consumerism. All those sentiments brought about by “supporting the cause” like increased morale, a sense of duty and responsibility were replaced with the idea of on-demand food supplies.

John E. Sheridan, 1918, U.S. Food Adminstration
John E. Sheridan, 1918, U.S. Food Adminstration

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Fast forward to today, when new data is emerging all the time showing the benefits of home gardening to overall physical health, mental health, positive environmental impact, unexpected results of community development and growth, increased local economic development and you have to scratch your head wondering why there is still reluctance to implement a program similar to the ones we had during world war times.

Unfortunately I think the answer is obvious. Everyone knows they should eat healthy, be conscious of food waste and that it would save them money in the long run. We’ve been conditioned to resist the government telling us to do anything, particularly when it directly impacts our personal decision-making ability. The only effective method left is to teach this kind of practice in our education system. Imagine the level of responsibility and care that would be instilled in a classroom of kids who were being taught that tending a garden is just a part of every day life. Which, it probably should be. Studies show increased science and reasoning ability, improved social and interpersonal skills, and a higher potential to eat a more healthy diet in adulthood.

Integrating that learning into a modern, publicly-funded school system dominated by “teach to the test” practices is next to impossible. In fact it’s infuriating to see evidence based practices for improving upon nationally identified societal problems so willingly brushed aside to be replaced with property tax arguments. Take for example, the argument that one should not pay property taxes to support school systems if one does not have a child attending school. This same individual is likely to complain about said school system and its failure to instill responsibility in young minds. It is to say the least, a frustrating predicament for advocates of these types of programs. I’m not suggesting that in-school gardening programs will lead to world peace, but it’s not a terrible place to start.

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So how difficult is it to get started? The National Gardening Association (NGA) has an online library dedicated to all the information you could ever want about beginning a garden. We live in an age when literally anything you want to learn is at your fingertips. The internet can be a wonderful tool. There are tutorials all over that outline the basics of home gardening and I’m willing to bet you know someone that at least grows tomatoes. It requires almost no space, most vegetables can be grown in a pot on the front porch. There’s money in it too. The NGA estimated in early 2016 that a 600 square foot garden could save a household anywhere between $600 and $700 a year in groceries. So if you want to continue to make the argument that poverty is a reason people don’t garden, it’s exactly the reason that people should. $600 doesn’t seem like a lot of cash to a couple making $140,000 combined, but you bet that amount means the world to a family of four making less than $25,000.

If anything, I think the conversation around home gardening is a shining example of obvious solutions to issues we often consider impossible to solve. It’s as I stated before, I don’t believe this is the primary path to world peace. But I’d be willing to stake that a well implemented national program encouraging kids to learn something as simple as caring for a small vegetable garden would make America look a lot different in thirty years.

About Christian Shuck

Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com.  He currently lives in Terre Haute.

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One comment

  1. Jennifer Finnerty

    How wonderful to hear someone write passionately about home gardening, and that it is NOT just for the farming family, but for all of us! I have a full-time job myself, and could buy all of my produce from the store, but, like you, make the time and the effort for a home garden for the very reasons you talk about. I also find that the quality of home-grown produce is quite higher than what you can find in the store. My full-time job, though, is in one of those publicly funded schools that “teaches to the test”, and here’s where our points-of-view start to differ. I agree with you that an understanding of gardening, nutrition, and agriculture are fundamental to the education of our students, but here is the good news….those things ARE being taught by schools which are legitimately cash-strapped and under pressure to pass the state mandated tests. Our Biology teachers, Agriculture teachers, and FACS teachers all incorporate these concepts, as well as canning and preserving in the FACS classroom, into the school year because our creative teachers can use those lessons to teach the concepts, which are also needed to pass those tests we hear so much about, in a meaningful way. In our cafeteria, we have lots of fresh vegetables (several of which kids haven’t seen at home), fruits and other healthy choices. In fact, I always get chuckle out of the Facebook memes that show a salad bar or yogurt parfait with the plaintive wail of “Why can’t our kids have this in school??” because, guess what, we DO serve those things in school. Our cafeteria has tri-colored carrots, jicama sticks, black cherry tomatoes, yogurt parfaits, and salad items daily, just to name a few of the choices. All of that being said, I do agree with you that more could be done in this area if the schedule, resources and finances will allow. I would certainly like to see more parents put forth a concerted effort at home to teach kids nutrition and healthy food shopping, but the number of minivans in the drive-thru lines at the fast-food restaurants makes me wonder if that is happening.

    One other point I support you on, but have a few alternate points to raise, is the notion that gardening can help reduce poverty. You are quite correct that the fruits and vegetables you pick in July and August are free at that time, and save on your grocery bill at the store, but I submit to you that the start-up costs to get to that point are a bit more than some people living at the poverty line can lay out at one time (especially the cost of the tiller, soil amendments, fruit trees, and plants if you aren’t starting from seed, which takes a decent amount of space and material inside). That is where your community garden could really help, if it is the type where equipment and fruit trees/vines are shared. The community garden is also a great benefit to all of those living in apartment complexes, which even in my small town is a fairly large number of people. BUT, your harvest in July, August, and maybe September are only going to cut in to your overall food budget for the year in any substantial way if you have the equipment, knowledge, and time to preserve your food (processing, canning, freezing, etc.). You’ll also put a dent in that food bill if you grow a plot of wheat, and another of oats, and learn to harvest, thrash, store and mill the grain. It sounds foreboding, but can be done. I grew up as a poor farming community kid, and we did exactly what your are saying in terms of feeding ourselves rather than pay a large bill at the grocery store. But, we also had a combine for harvesting wheat, we had beef cows, and could trade for pork and eggs, and my stay-at-home grandmother tended a dairy cow. If your current garden is not much work, let me assure you that dairy cows are, and if all of the adults in my life had to go to work everyday to pay the bills, which is quite common today, this system would not have worked so well. Also, if all of this was taking place in the residential neighborhoods of Greencastle, it would not have worked so well.

    So, if a federal program could be enacted, I’d like to caution that throwing a little bit of money at the schools, and then expecting all of these things to come to life, is probably not realistic. But if a federal program could support a large and well supplied community garden, and the resources to help schools, parents, guardians, and kids make use of it (and transfer those skills to their own backyard if they have one) then you really might be on to something.

    Thank you for writing this thought provoking article!

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