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EARTHWATCH

Garden of Eatin' : The anniversary of Pearl Harbor recalls the victory gardens that fed much of a nation--a spirit that lives on here and there.

December 05, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This weekend, when many Americans will be remembering Pearl Harbor, Dave Duffy will be thinking about victory gardens.

"I probably owe my life to the victory garden movement," said the Ventura-based publisher of the nationally circulated monthly magazine Backwoods Home.

"My father was in charge of part of the volunteer food growing operations in the south Boston neighborhood where I grew up," he said. "It was quite a patriotic thing to do, and had something to do with his draft exemption. The main thing was, he had four kids. My brothers were always telling me when I was young that the draft board changed the rules. He had to have five kids to keep the exemption. I was born nine months later--in 1944."

Duffy's heritage has strongly influenced his life and his work. The magazine he founded after moving to Ventura stresses self-sufficiency and is filled with articles such as "Feed Seven on Under $300 a Month," "Salting Blueberries to Preserve Them," and "A House-Heating Solar Greenhouse."

Were it not for that reference to "solar," you could sort of think you're back in the '40s, reading a pamphlet from the Victory Garden Institute. That organization, affiliated with the War Production Board, was created to coordinate the phenomenal energy that 20 million Americans poured into volunteer community gardens and gardens in back yards and empty lots.

The instant the press began running headlines such as "Victory Farm Volunteers," "Victory Gardens--How All Can Help" and "Miracle on a City Lot," everyone, it seemed, pitched in. A movement that was launched within a week of the attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in 1943 in the production of fully half of the fresh-eaten produce in America. Because it freed up commercial food production for the Armed Forces and our allies, it gained the nickname "The Third Front" from the War Production Board.

Another Venturan, recently retired city Fire Chief Bobby Horne, has recollections of Pearl Harbor Day and his own home garden.

"I was growing up in Arkansas at the time," Horne said. "Everybody already had some sort of garden (out of economic necessity) but when the war came, everybody added things. There was rationing, with results like Meatless Tuesday.

"So we planned meals around our fresh vegetables. America had been the first in the world with a big distribution system--Idaho potatoes, Florida strawberries, etc. And with boxcars needed for the war effort, we had to go back to growing food where it was going to be eaten."

It is ironic that Horne should mention the food distribution system. Although it may well have been the best in the world at that time, it had not resulted in a particularly well-nourished citizenry.

The Selective Service in 1942 became alarmed at the number of malnourished draftees--and joined in the national hue and cry that everybody should raise and eat veggies. Thus, compounding the irony, America was pushed into nutritional virtue by the outbreak of war.

Horne and Duffy kept right on gardening after the war ended. Duffy, after moving to Ventura, even figured out a way to get two crops of corn annually out of a 15-by-15-foot plot in the Silver Strand neighborhood.

"The secret was mushroom compost bought from a local mushroom farm for $5 a truckload," he said.

Horne moved to Ventura, joined the Fire Department and did after-hours gardening at several sites in the city.

"It was a real challenge," he said. "But when you're out in the garden, you don't have personnel problems." He was a city department head for a long time, remember.

Not everyone was so dedicated to gardening after WWII. Prosperity ended the prewar economic pressure to save money by growing your own.

But in the '70s, a back-to-the-land fad emerged out of the general uneasiness about our increasingly chemicalized food. The Public Broadcasting Service rediscovered Americans' old fascination with victory gardens and launched a weekly series with that name in 1975.

The economic recession of the early '80s and even more worries about the safety of our food prompted PBS to keep churning out new episodes into the '90s.

Ventura County residents who may be intrigued by the possibility of a real-life "Back to the Future" experience with a victory garden should check out Cornucopia Gardens on Telegraph Road. This city-run community project is managed by Joanne Wolf.

"I had my own victory garden as a kindergarten kid," Wolf said. "I won first prize for carrots at school. My mother thought at first that I would just kill the vegetables, but I kept things going for three years (until the end of the war). They were really hitting us hard about victory gardens in school."

Horne maintains three growing plots at Wolf's project. During the worst of this year's water crisis, he was able to head off a local government move to restrict water use at Cornucopia Gardens.

Echoing wisdom that gave America the civic wonder of the victory garden in the first place--he stood his ground, saying: "Don't short the gardeners, they will produce without wasting anything. Including water."

* FYI

Modern-day examples of the Victory Garden spirit can be seen locally at Cornucopia Gardens. Growing plots are available for rental. Call Joanne Wolf, city of Ventura, 658-4726. For the nostalgia gardener, "Food Gardens for Defense" the original 1942 handbook by M.G. Kains, has been republished as "The Original Victory Garden Book," available at your public library. "The Victory Garden" public television series runs on KCET-Channel 28 at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays.

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