There's something grounding and hopeful about growing plants.

By Julia Kelly
February 01, 2021
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If you started a "pandemic garden" as COVID-19 spread around the globe in 2020, you're not alone. Millions of us did, including me in a way, though I live in a second-floor apartment in London without much green space. However, inspired by research for my book The Last Garden in England, which tells the story of five women living in three time periods who are all connected by one incredible garden, I pulled on my gardening gloves. I planted out bare-root roses in pots and fussed over the clematis that grows by my front door. And while reading up on significant movements in garden history, I realized that our desire to grow plants, especially vegetables and fruits, during a crisis is part of a long tradition dating back to the World Wars.

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During World War II, for example, many countries encouraged citizens to start gardening to help supplement food rations. In the United Kingdom, the government motivated people to till the soil with the slogan, "Dig for Victory." Gardens popped up along railway lines, in local allotments, and abandoned lots in the city, as well as the flower gardens of country estates. In London, even Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park helped encourage people to garden by installing gardens of their own, and at Sandringham House, a private home of King George VI, gardeners dug up the house's long stretch of lawn to plant vegetables.

It took a little longer for the U.S. to enter the wartime gardening game, but shortly after Pearl Harbor, the Department of Agriculture began to campaign for people to create "Victory Gardens." (This wasn't the first time that Americans were asked to garden for the war effort. During World War I, the government also encouraged people to plow and plant unused land to help feed the nation.) Like their counterparts across the pond, Americans began growing more produce at home, especially because many commercial crops were earmarked for the troops.

A Life Magazine article from May 3, 1943, features the 18,000,000 Victory Gardens being tended by Americans, including ones in some surprising places. "Every unprotected piece of ground was being dug up for Victory Gardens: in Boston's Copley Square and in the Portland (Ore.) Zoo, in Chicago's Arlington racetrack and in the Wellesley College campus," the author writes. "Everyone was busy tucking seeds to bed in the moist spring soil—movie stars, soldiers, admirals, airline hostesses, nuns and prisoners."

A thriving Victory Garden meant having a healthy mix of seasonal produce that could be eaten fresh or canned for later to help feed the family. However, these gardens in the U.S. as well as the green spaces of those who dug for victory in the U.K. weren't just about producing food, important though that was. They were a vital part of boosting morale for those on the home front, helping them feel connected to the larger war effort. They may have also helped improve people's mental health. Psychologists who have studied the effects of gardening on people's wellbeing have found that it can help boost your mood and calm worries

The satisfaction of doing something active that can also help you feed your family and calm you through anxious times may be why so many of us felt drawn to our gardens big and small during the first wave of the coronavirus disease outbreak. Now, a new growing season is on the horizon while the pandemic drags on, so no doubt your new gardening habit will serve you well this spring, too. 

My own garden will be growing in a big way in 2021. I'll be moving from that London flat with its container garden of roses to a new home that has its own private garden. This luxury means that for the first time in my life I'll have a garden to grow in over the years to come. There may even be room for a modest vegetable patch to start a Victory Garden of my very own.

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