A Brief History of Vegetable Gardening

The popularity of vegetable gardening has waxed and waned over time, but given the fact that people have been gardening for the past 10,000 years, chances are we’ll never stop. Gardening has a rich history, and it is fascinating to see how people's reasons for gardening and styles of gardening have changed over the years.  Here is how gardening has evolved in the past century.

The Victory Garden
During the first half of the 20th century, much of the world was at war.  Because war is so resource-intensive, many countries asked their citizens to pitch in and contribute.  Even our presidents did their part.  In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Wilson brought sheep to graze and fertilize the White House lawns in an effort to save manpower, fuel, and chemicals, so they could instead be used in the war.  In 1943, the Roosevelts planted a "victory garden" on the White House grounds.  A victory garden was a private or community vegetable garden, either in a backyard or public area, where people could grow food for their families and communities. This was done in order to reduce demands on the country’s resources. 

This effort was extremely successful, and, according to Michael Pollan in ''Farmer in Chief'', more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40& of the produce consumed in America by the end of WWII.  Unfortunately, this movement lost its hold, especially in the economic upswing of the 1980s and '90s.  For a generation, we have been barraged by the media with messages of consumerism and dependency, and many kids don’t even know that the food at the grocery store actually grows from the ground.  But now that our economic and environmental future is uncertain, it’s time to reconsider our food choices.  Pollan opines that the current president should support a ''new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking 'victory' over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.'' 

The White House Garden
Like everything that happens at the White House, even planting a garden creates controversy.  According to Pollan, the USDA. objected to Roosevelt’s plans for a garden, due to fears that home gardening would hurt the American food industry.  But the White House victory garden was a success, in food production as well as promotion of the Victory Garden movement.  However, many things changed once the war ended, and the White House vegetable garden was replaced with lawn. 

The Clintons attempted to reinstate a vegetable garden, but were denied by the White House, as the formal nature of the White House grounds was not conducive to a vegetable garden. The Clintons’ garden was relegated to an inconspicuous spot on the roof of the White House.  It produced vegetables, but didn’t make much of an impact on the collective consciousness.  But the times and minds have changed.  On March 20, 2009, the Obamas broke ground on the largest White House vegetable garden to date, right on the south lawn.

Community Gardens
As gardens have made a comeback at the White House, so have they at many other houses.  In 2009, Elizabeth Razzi reported in the Washington Post that demand for vegetable seeds was up about 22% over 2008, which was also up from the previous year, according to George Ball, chairman and chief executive of the Burpee seed company.   According to Razzi, the National Gardening Association says the number of households that plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables and herbs this year is up 19%.  The reasons are economic or environmental, or a combination of both. 

However, backyards aren’t the only places you can grow vegetables.  People lacking the space to garden in their own backyards can participate in a community garden, which is a single piece of land gardened collectively by a group of people.  It is different than a public park, which is usually managed by a professional staff.  Rather, community gardens are maintained by the members of the community. Some gardens are grown collectively, while others are split into individual plots.  They can be on public or private land, they may require a membership fee or not, and they may have a variety of rules or regulations. 

Guerrilla Gardens
Speaking of rules and regulations, guerrilla gardening is breaking them all.  Picture a band of darkly-dressed gardeners, hoes in toe, overtaking a neglected trash-littered corner of dirt at night, sowing seeds that will flower and feed in months to come.  Those are guerrilla gardeners, and they’re gardening with a political purpose.  These activists take over a piece of land that has been abandoned by its owner, and on it they grow crops or plants.  It’s debatable when the movement began—some would call Johnny Appleseed a guerrilla gardener—but the term was coined in the ‘70s in New York, when a group transformed a neglected private lot into a garden. 

Vegetable gardening is becoming increasingly popular in the last few years as more and more consumers want to have a hand in what they eat for a variety of reasons. Growing your own vegetables might sound like a simple solution to complex problems like high food prices, food recalls, unhealthy diets and sedentary habits, but it can make a bigger impact than you think.


American Community Gardening Association. ''What is a Community Garden?'' Accessed March 2010. www.communitygarden.org/.

History Link 101. ''Story of Farming.'' Accessed March 2010. http://www.historylink101.com.

Pollan, Michael. ''Farmer in Chief.'' The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2008. Accessed March 2010. http://www.nytimes.com.

Razzi, Elizabeth. ''Recession Victory Gardening.'' The Washington Post, March 12, 2009. Accessed March 2010. http://voices.washingtonpost.com.

Victory Seed Company. ''The Victory Garden.'' Accessed March 2010. http://www.vintageveggies.com.