By JOSE GERMAN
For Montclair Local
Jose German writes the “Gardening for Life” column for Montclair Local and is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.
The Victory Garden movement, nowadays more commonly referred to as urban farming, is very strong in Montclair.
In the past weeks, Montclair residents, facing depleted supermarket shelves and ordered to stay at home, have turned back to a tried and proven response to uncertain times: home-grown food. The Victory Garden, which helped America through two world wars, is set to make a comeback.
Victory Gardens are a natural strategy for coping with this pandemic: growing vegetables on one’s own ground brings people outdoors, with no chance of being infected.
The Victory Garden has a long history. People may remember it from World War II, but it actually began earlier.
The first Victory Garden movement was born during World War I, when farmers were called to battle and farms became battlefields of the Great War. With a severe food crisis affecting Europe, the United States assumed the role of feeding millions of starving Europeans.
Charles Lathrop Pack, one of the wealthiest men in the country, began organizing the Victory Garden movement weeks before the United States joined the war in 1917.
Pack encouraged Americans to plant all available land, including yards, schoolyards, parks, and vacant lots, to grow food to support the war effort. Pack’s efforts were very effective, with a total of 5.2 million new garden plots cultivated by 1918.
The movement lost popularity after the armistice, only to re-emerge stronger than ever with the United States’ entry into the Second World War in 1941.
Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture was not initially happy with this initiative. However, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to jump-start the movement by creating a Victory Garden on the White House lawn, and by 1944 around 20 million Victory Gardens produced more than 40 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the country.
Victory Gardens were seen as a way for Americans on the home front to support the struggle against fascism, with the added benefit of supplementing diets in a time of food rationing. The war’s end in 1945, along with the postwar obsession with large-scale industrialized agriculture, brought about the second demise of this inspiring movement.
Montclair is well-known for residents gardening at home to produce their own food. Bob McLean, who moved to Montclair with his parents in the 1920s, told this author he planted his first garden at age 6, “buying seeds with three cents my parents gave me.” McLean passed away in 2011.
McLean’s garden was impressive, as was the quality of his soil. His yard, he said, was eight inches higher than his neighbors’ yards as a result. McLean was a pioneer, and his garden inspired neighbors for decades.
Pat Kenschaft’s house is just across the street from McLean’s on Gordonhurst Avenue.
“In this time of quarantine the garden is the thing that is keeping me sane,” Kenschaft said. She is known to many in Montclair as an activist for growing food at home, and has inspired many people with her organic garden, sharing her gardening journey through open garden tours and via email.
“My garden is still thriving,” Kenschaft said. “Four decades ago I was sick and ready to go on disability, and my daughter suggested that I start a garden, which I did. In a phenomenal way, gardening transformed my life.”
One of the new Victory Gardens in Montclair was made by Lily Becker, 20, a sophomore at Cornell University. Becker returned to Montclair when her university closed due to coronavirus and made use of her free time to create a backyard vegetable garden with eight raised beds – and install a chicken coop.
“I want to inspire people my age about being sustainable and growing your own food,” Becker said. The garden will provide all the veggies her family needs, not to mention those eggs. As a young woman, Becker feels the overwhelming pressure to take action against the climate crisis, and home food production is a start.
The coronavirus pandemic was the trigger motivating her to be ready in case of a food shortage. “I need to send a message to my peers in college and in my community that this is the right thing to do,” she said.
In addition to backyard — or front yard — vegetable gardens at private homes, organizations in town have created community gardens to support families in need and food programs for those without space to grow their own.
In 2017, as part of an Eagle Scout project, Montclair High School students created a community garden at Rand Park that, like most such gardens in town, donates the produce to local food pantries. Becker helped create that garden.
Leading organizations promoting community gardens in Montclair include A Lot to Grow, Montclair Community Farms, and the Northeast Earth Coalition (NEEC). Partners for Health Foundation, a local nonprofit organization promoting healthy diets, supports many of the community gardens in Montclair.
Along with Cornucopia Network of New Jersey, a local organization supporting local food production, Partners for Health partially funded a new community garden developed by the NEEC’s Urban Growers Program on Pine Street at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
This garden is unique since it provides food for three refugee families from Central America who live on the premises. Each family has its own plot, and they have already planted the garden with peas, lettuce, cilantro, potatoes, carrots, onions, and radishes, among other veggies.
Of the 12 raised beds in the garden, six are dedicated to the Toni’s Kitchen food program.
In times of crisis, Americans have turned to Victory Gardens. This movement, born of war, continues to inspire people today in the face of the coronavirus struggle, helping families to grow their own organic food steps from their kitchens.
HOW TO CREATE A VICTORY GARDEN
- Find a spot in your yard that receives at least six hours of direct sun.
- Make a raised bed of natural wood, since treated wood has arsenic, which contaminates the soil. Set up at least three raised beds 5-feet-by-4-feet each or the size of your preference.If you have a small space, containers will do.
- Get organic soil, available in your preferred nursery, and a bag of compost to be mixed with the soil. Each raised bed would need a minimum of four bags of soil.
- Get seeds (preferably non-GMO). Heirloom seeds are best.
- Include seeds for vegetables that grow in both cool and warm seasons. During cool season you can grow lettuce, arugula, parsley, kale, beans, radishes, carrots, potatoes, collard greens, broccoli and anything in the family of cabbage, among others. In warm weather (May to September) you can grow corn, tomatoes, beans, summer lettuce, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, etc. Remember that everything that you planted in the spring is good to be planted in the fall.
- If you lack the patience to grow from seeds, you can buy seedlings from a local nursery.
- If critters are a problem, protect your garden with a fence or a net.