Imagine a time when gardening took on an edge of patriotism and survival. During World War II, the "Greatest Generation" was not just on the war fronts, it was also here on the homefront.
As the fog lifted from the San Joaquin Valley and the winter of 1942 came to an end, gardening advice columns began suggesting lists of vegetables to be grown in a simple 20-by-30-feet garden plot for a "victory garden." Gardeners were asked to forgo any thought of planting flowers and consider planting Swiss chard, lettuce, tomatoes, stringless green beans, carrots, beets and peppers.
The North of the River Woman's Club notified members in February of 1942, to meet at the home of Mrs. Ray Innes to find out "what to plant this month and how to plant it." In May of 1942, the agriculture department's open house at Kern County Union High School (now Bakersfield High School) emphasized how to grow "foods for freedom" in their victory garden demonstrations.
"Bug-a-Boo" gardening spray was perfect for victory gardens, as advertisements began reflecting the national emergency. Vegetable seeds evolved into "victory garden" seeds.
The motivation to grow a victory garden was not limited to patriotism. In the spring of 1942, it was announced that fruits and vegetables would not fall under the newly enacted Price Control Act to keep down wartime inflation. Now planting a victory garden became a means to protect the family budget.
By the spring of 1943, the days of mild encouragement to grow a victory garden was over. Under the guidance of Howard K. Dickinson, the director of the "food-for-victory" program in Kern County, the young men and women of the Future Farmers of America, 4-H Clubs, YWCA Girls Reserves, Camp Fire Girls and the Boy Scouts were used in a door-to-door outreach campaign in every community of Kern County. Nothing was left to chance as amateur gardeners were organized by block leaders answering to the Kern County Defense Council and the Bakersfield War Council. People were also encouraged to begin raising chickens and rabbits to offset the increasingly tight rationing of meat.
The message was clear: helping on the homefront will win the war.
At the dawn of 1945, Americans could see great gains against the Axis countries. The installation of German prisoner-of-war camps in Lamont, Arvin and Shafter were reminders that great military victories were being won, and the end of the war was growing ever closer. After four years of war, the victory gardeners of Kern County had become very experienced. No more "ration book blues," when certain fruits and vegetables were unavailable in local stores. The gardening season of 1945 was going to be the most productive of all the war years.
It had to be. Not only did 1945 dawn with the Allied victories, it dawned with announcements of food shortages due to the lack of labor for the fields, decline in canned foods for civilians, and a sharp cut in allotments for sugar used in home canning.
In the spring of 1945, California encouraged all victory gardeners to increase the size of their plots by at least 10 percent. Kern County responded with determined grit. The Kern County "food-for-victory" campaign published a free guide specific to the gardens of Kern County, offering assistance in irrigation, controlling insect infestations, and instruction on food preservation. Ten vacant lots -- comprising three acres -- were cleared by children in Tehachapi as "500 tomato plants, 300 bell pepper plants and 200 hundred eggplants" were put in the ground.
By the end of World War II, the victory garden program was deemed a smashing success. Besides providing food for the table, it was also seen as a cure for everything from boredom to juvenile delinquency.
A real estate advertisement for a home in the Alta Vista neighborhood stated it had a "nice victory garden," reflecting the attitude that victory gardens were an asset when selling a home, and had become part of the culture of Kern County.
-- Ken Hooper is a history and archiving teacher at Bakersfield High School. He is the past-president of the Kern County Historical Society and the current historian for the Kern Veteran's Memorial Foundation.