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V for Vegetable

Getting down and dirty in modern victory gardens, the return of an American legacy.

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Gardening in central Idaho is tricky business.

Extreme conditions are the norm in these mountains. The growing season—typified by a blazing high-desert sun and a parching lack of rain—rarely lasts more than three months. A clever homeowner might plant some low-maintenance native landscaping and call it a day. But the industrious and ambitious try to expand their repertoires (and palates) with productive, sustainable vegetable gardens. Bruce Collier and his wife Paula did it in 1976, when they built their Hulen Meadows house, just north of Ketchum. “I wanted to raise vegetables,” Bruce Collier said. “I had a garden in Boise, and when I was a little boy, my dad had a garden. His mother did, too. We didn’t think it was something associated with hard times. It was a way for us to have fresh vegetables each year. Everyone canned vegetables. It’s a lifelong tradition.”

A vegetable garden is more than a hobby. It’s a tradition and a choice. Collier is among hundreds in the Wood River Valley and tens of thousands nationwide who are digging in and relearning how to cultivate self-reliance in an increasingly consumptive world. More than half a century ago, the practice was common, and we called them victory gardens.

The original government-backed garden programs grew out of wartime necessity. When the reliable flow of food was threatened by naval blockades, and rationing challenged the day-to-day nutrition of every man, woman and child on the home front, organized garden campaigns appeared as early as 1917 in Britain and America. By the peak of World War II, the gardens were a fixture.

In 1942, Professor John Raeburn, head of the Agricultural Plans Branch of the Great Britain Ministry of Food, created the “Dig for Victory” campaign, which substantially helped feed the United Kingdom during the escalating war. Propaganda posters called on regular citizens to do their part, and the Ministry of Food estimated that 1.4 million people cultivated vegetable gardens in Britain during the war, while others raised rabbits, goats and chickens. By 1943, according to The Daily Telegraph, more than a million tons of vegetables were being produced.

Clockwise from top left: A simple wheelbarrow carries the weight at the Inner Circle Garden; Bruce Collier’s early garlic scrapes; Yes, corn does grow in the mountains; The Mountain School’s red onion pride; Matt Gershater harvests beets south of Ketchum; Keeping crop names straight is a must for any organized victory garden.

America matched the British effort. In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt set the tone by planting a war garden at the White House. Americans blessed with a plot of land, a sunny porch or even a windowsill followed her example and made the American Victory Garden project a huge success: Nearly 20 million dug in with enthusiasm. They planted gardens in backyards and on grassy strips between driveways. They dug in empty lots and on city rooftops. Communities shared seeds and cuttings, coordinated who would grow particular crops and formed cooperatives. In 1942, seed packet sales rose 300 percent and in 1943, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, these gardens produced eight million tons of fruits and vegetables. Cabbage heads and bean pods joined Old Glory as symbols of patriotic pride as gardens produced 40 percent of the fresh produce eaten in America. >>>



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