March 19, 2009
In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt had a portion of the White House lawn dug up and planted in vegetables. It was her way of teaching by example, encouraging Americans to contribute to the war effort in a most personal way: by growing their own food.
It worked. By the end of World War II, there were 20 million "Victory Gardens" throughout the land, supplying an astounding 40% of the vegetables produced in the U.S.
Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack applied a jackhammer to part of the parking lot at the Ag Department's main office on the mall in Washington, breaking asphalt for the department's own 600-square-foot Victory Garden, to be called the "People's Garden" — a project he wants to implement at all its facilities worldwide.
First Lady Michelle Obama, on her getting-to-know-you visit to Ag, approved. "I'm a big believer in community gardens," she remarked, "both because of their beauty and for providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across the nation and the world."
Eleanor again? Will Michelle prevail upon (or collaborate with) her husband to take food theorist Michael Pollan's recommendation to use five acres of the White House lawn for organically-grown fruits and vegetables? If FDR said yes, how can BHO say no?
"Making this particular plot of American land productive, especially if the First Family gets out there and pulls weeds now and again," Pollan wrote in his open letter to the presidential candidates last October, "will provide an image ... of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one's family and community."
The idea of a First Farmer does have a Peaceable Kingdom ring to it, a welcome counterweight to Commander-in-Chief. Whether or not it ever gets that far, this administration's positive attitude toward a new (that is to say, old) approach to feeding America and the world will further increase the momentum, slowly building for years, away from the factory farming and processed foods that are compromising both the environment and people's health, and toward regionally and locally grown produce and meats.
The crisis of the environment, now coupled with the crisis of the economy, is motivating people to re-evaluate their priorities, and it's not just about saving instead of spending — it's about the staff of life itself.
Folks are voting with their feet — and many of them with their hands as well. They're shopping at farmers' markets, cooking conscientiously, experiencing the simple pleasures of eating wholesomely. They are putting food under their own control again. It's the "ownership society" in a way the former president never conceived of it.
I keep thinking of that 40%. We could personally contribute to our country's food security and environmental health by planting our own Victory Gardens. It is surprising how much a well-thought-out and well-planted little plot can yield. Mel Bartholomew, whose ingenious method of "square-foot gardening" is the best I've found for those of us with limited space and attention-spans, has shown how a four-foot-square bed of soil can produce vegetables enough to feed one person throughout the growing season — which for you in Southern California is just about all year long. Multiply that space by two or more and you can feed a family.
His approach, as described in his 1981 book, Square Foot Gardening, in its recently-released sequel, All New Square Foot Gardening, and on his website, squarefootgardening.com, makes vegetable gardening comprehensible, manageable, prolific, and constantly interesting. Digging up a four-by-four space in your back (or front!) yard and getting the soil right is the only hard part — and you only do it once. After that, it's easy.
First you divide your plot into 16 one-foot squares. In the spring you start with a variety of cool-weather plants — several squares for lettuce and other salad greens and a square or two each for radishes, beets, carrots, spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard, herbs, whatever you like; Bartholomew tells you exactly how many seeds or seedlings to plant in each square. When you harvest one little croplet, you turn the soil with a trowel, add some compost, and rotate the square to a heat-loving plant — a pepper, an eggplant, or a bush bean, for example. You can also fit one border of your plot with a trellis to grow vining plants like cucumbers, squash, and (with some attention) even tomatoes. This approach can easily be adapted to container gardening as well.
I've used the square-foot method in my four-by-eight-foot raised bed in our community garden for years, with extraordinary results. Intensive, systematic planting, with closer, more consistent spacing than the seed packets advise, crowds out weeds, discourages insect pests, and gives a great yield. Rotating the little crops throughout the seasons replenishes soil nutrients naturally. And your miniature farm, with its diversity of color and foliage, looks as attractive as a flower garden.
This is only one way of small-space gardening; there are many other approaches that may suit you better, and plenty of books and courses to help you.
So if you haven't done so already, start your own Victory Garden. In addition to providing your family with fresh, uncontaminated produce, you are helping to balance the urban ecosystem by attracting insect pollinators and lowering heat and carbon dioxide levels. Most importantly, you are taking back for yourself your most intimate connection with nature: your food supply.
The First Farmer would be proud.