July 2018

Victory gardens: a down-to-earth solution to climate change

Hot, sticky weather, intense storms, long periods of drought—the results of climate change are all around us. The battle against increased greenhouse gases and carbon emissions is being fought on multiple fronts, but one idea is feasible for most anyone with a yard: plant a garden.

More specifically, a climate victory garden, a reboot of the victory gardens planted by millions of Americans during the first and second World Wars. Green America, a non-profit advocacy group, launched the Climate Victory Gardens initiative last spring to encourage Americans to curb carbon emissions, preserve carbon in the soil and grow healthy fruits and vegetables by planting gardens similar to the ones that dotted the U.S. landscape a century ago. Their goal: 40 million gardens by 2030, double the amount of victory gardens planted in the World War II era.

“Americans look at climate change and wonder ‘what can I do?’,” says Todd Larsen, Green America’s executive co-director for consumer and corporate engagement. “You can control your own space. Planting a garden—or contributing to a community garden—gives you access to fresh, healthy food and contributes to fighting carbon emissions.”

The original victory gardens

In 1917, the U.S. government vigorously promoted “war gardens,” encouraging Americans to support the war effort by planting, harvesting and storing their own fruits and vegetables so that commercial food production could be focused on exporting food to our allies and troops overseas. Propaganda posters urged citizens to “sow the seeds of victory” and “be a citizen of the soil” by converting any open green space—from backyards and vacant lots to school grounds and parks—to a garden. The effort stepped up during World War II when the government again asked Americans to turn to their gardens—now called victory gardens—for food to supplement rationing.

In 1942, approximately 15 million families had victory gardens. Two years later, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced 8 million tons of food, equaling about 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed at that time in the U.S.

“What I love about the victory garden movement is that it shows the U.S. can turn on a dime to make good things happen,” says John Forti, a garden historian and executive director of Bedrock Gardens in Lee, NH. “Every cooperative extension and government agency reached out to Americans to educate them to be a service to the country and their families and fellow citizens.”

The government stopped promoting victory gardens after the war. Green America’s climate victory garden concept piggy-backs on recent efforts to bring back home gardens as a way to support self-sufficiency and local, healthy eating. According to Larsen, shifting garden practices towards regenerative agriculture (a holistic set of farming principles that, among other things, enriches soil and improves water quality) can help reverse climate change and remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil, where it supports biodiversity.

Get your hands dirty

“You can literally do things in the dirt with your hands that are tangible actions against climate change,” says Jes Walton, food campaigns specialist for Green America, who blogs about her own victory garden efforts. “You can use specific techniques for climate-conscious gardening.”

Carbon constantly cycles from our air into plants and soil, and back into the air. An imbalance in this cycle—carbon burned as fossil fuel—contributes to global warming. That’s why paying attention to your soil is important. Depending on how its managed, each patch of soil and its plants takes in and releases various types and amounts of heat-trapping gases.

Walton has a checklist for conscientious gardens that includes tips like:

  • Grow native plants and perennials. Growing plants native to your part of the country and planting perennials means less use of chemicals or additional water. Perennials will also provide ground cover, preventing soil erosion.
  • Plant low-growing, flowering crops that encourage pollinators. Vegetables like peas or beans that also grow flowers attract bees and butterflies, insects that are vital to a healthy ecosystem.
  • Use organic farming methods. Every household can compost by saving food scraps and yard waste. Compost is a much healthier fertilizer for your garden than chemical treatments.

Connect with nature and your community

Getting outside in the garden isn’t just good for the environment—it’s good for you. “It fosters a healthy relationship with nature, even if you’re only in your backyard,” says Walton. Forti agrees. “There’s nothing more delicious than growing what you eat,” he says.

There’s a community aspect, too. Share gardening tips and the fruits of your hard work with your neighbors—there’s nothing more delicious than a ripe tomato fresh off the vine or a healthy, leafy bunch of kale. Your state’s cooperative extension office is a great resource for soil testing and gardening tips specific to your area. Green America’s Facebook and Instagram pages offer opportunities to connect with other victory gardeners and post photos of your gardens.

Let’s dig in!


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