Food & Drink June 8, 2010

V for Vegetable

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

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.

Connor Coffey looks on as Ian Timoney digs in at the Inner Circle Garden.

Victory gardening isn’t so different from any other form of gardening, said Elizabeth Jeffrey, a member of the Hailey-based Valley Victory Gardeners. “Plus, it produces food for you to enjoy way beyond the end of the gardening season. It takes it up a notch from the virtues of any other garden.”

In the early 1940s, victory gardens produced about 40 percent of the fresh produce eaten in America.

About 120 local gardeners formed the group in 2009. They meet once a month, even in winter, and are committed to gardening for nutrition. They share their hard-earned knowledge along with precious seeds and early-season starts. They find inspiration in their neighbors’ gardens and some surprises about what grows in Idaho (big healthy Halloween pumpkins) and what doesn’t (okra).

In what is ostensibly a vegetable gardening club, “victory” implies a larger purpose. By growing their own veggies, they opt out of a centralized food system that relies on shipping perishable crops hundreds or even thousands of miles. “It is a victory over the industrial methods of transportation of the past fifty years,” Jeffrey said.

The gardens recall what was once a celebrated American value: good common sense. A garden’s benefits are simple, but countless. Gardeners spend more time outdoors and less hours on the road to and from grocery stores. Vegetable gardeners are what they eat, and they reap the rewards of a colorful, pesticide-free, additive-free diet produced with their own sweat and toil. Gardening is a therapeutic form of exercise that works almost every muscle in the body. It’s a contemplative and fundamentally human endeavor and something entire families can do together. The family that grows together—well, you know.

Salome Taylor is a longtime wood river Valley gardener. When her Hailey garden grew beyond the confines of her yard, she co-opted a strip of land between her fence and Spruce Street in Old Hailey. Sunflowers and pole beans now grow in abundance in this unlikely space, and a pear espalier lines the alley behind the house.

“Few people know how well garlic grows in this valley,” Taylor said. “It’s one of the easiest crops to plant and to harvest. We plant our garlic in the fall and harvest in early to mid-August.”

A victory garden doesn’t need a lot of space. Herbs and even some vegetables and fruits can be grown in small plots or even in boxes or barrels on patios, balconies and windowsills. Six hours of sun a day is the only requirement.

Stephy Smith, a member of the Valley Victory Gardeners, has what she called “a postage-stamp-size garden in Hailey.” But “Oh, the yields we get.”

At the Inner Circle Garden, Matt Gershater and Evan Sofro eat their turnips as nature intended.

“Even though our growing season is short, we have great success,” thanks to our long summer days, Smith said. “We grow tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli and artichokes—yes, artichokes.” Smith grows them all in a potager, or kitchen garden, where flowers are intermixed with vegetables and herbs for a more aesthetic approach to the farmyard look of a vegetable plot. Smith also found that perennial vegetables like lettuce, arugula and spinach have reseeded and crop up each spring alongside her perennial flowers.

“To me, there is no greater pastime than strolling through the garden in the evening to harvest something fresh for supper,” she said.

In the spring of 2008, first lady michelle Obama called on the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt and planted a new vegetable garden on the White House south lawn. She invited a class of fifth graders from the nearby Washington, D.C., Bancroft Elementary School to help her dig the 1,100-square-foot plot, right next to Sasha and Malia’s swing set. Within about a month, this symbolic garden, the first on the White House grounds since Roosevelt’s prototype, was producing fresh food for the First Family and guests.

Clockwise from TOP left: The author’s red potato harvest; a Mountain School bean pod offers a peek at what the harvest will bring; The Mountain School’s cabbage provides hands-on learning for its students; The author’s carrot harvest at the end of a fruitful season.

Though our country is engaged in two wars, Obama’s was not a wartime sacrifice. Instead, the First Lady explained the garden as a logical complement to her larger initiative against childhood obesity, which she called a public health crisis. The facts bear her out. According to a July 2009 report by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, more than 30 percent of children are obese in thirty states. In Idaho, the eleventh least overweight state, 27 percent of children and teens are obese.

The White House vegetable garden is a demonstrable tool for teaching kids about locally grown fruits and vegetables; students from Bancroft Elementary also helped with planting, harvesting and cooking the produce. For the Obamas, the garden doesn’t seem so much a hobby as a stand against the edible ills of modern America. But political action in this case may be less an attempt to dictate policy than to keep up with a surging social movement. According to the Garden Writers Association Foundation, a 2008 national survey found that vegetable gardens are on an upward trend nationwide. Reasons stated include the poor economy, concerns about food safety and an urge to reconnect with the land.

Though the White House is loathe to focus on the ongoing recession, it’s no accident that many are also returning to victory gardening during difficult economic times. Growing plants from seeds or seedlings is a less costly way to eat fresh produce, and eating your own food, even in small amounts, is a small investment that pays big dividends in health, sustainability and household budgets.

In the Wood River Valley, residents and chefs are finding ways to coax gourmet options from small plots. A community-supported garden run by Sego Restaurant, a locavore gourmet eatery in Ketchum, will supply chef Taite Pearson with fresh produce from within walking distance this summer. In Hailey, Chris Kastner, owner of CK’s Real Food, picks squash blossoms, berries and vegetables from the simple plantings in the alley behind his south-Valley foodie institution. And in Bellevue, The Mountain School planted an expansive victory garden to feed its preschoolers each day and connect them, even at a very young age, to the food they eat.

Just south of Ketchum, Matt Gershater and Whitney McNees enjoy the fruits of their labor at a hugely productive garden they started with the help of friends and some seeds imported from James Reed’s Onsen Farms. (Reed was a co-founding producer of Idaho’s Bounty, a member-supported online farmers market.) McNees’ and Gershater’s circular garden is expansive and ambitious. The unique design, resembling a sort of photosynthetic pie chart, was plotted according to plant color and sun angle. The north and south quadrants were seeded with greens—spinach, Swiss chard, bok choy and arugula. The east and west quadrants were planted red and spicy—fiery peppers, beets and pungent herbs.

McNees said the garden fed about six people, give or take, three meals a day for three months. “It was amazing. It was a huge bonding experience,” she said. “I noticed a difference in my energy and the way I felt. It was good raw food that came from our hands. We put a lot of love in it.”

With vegetable gardening, the wood River Valley is a paradoxical pioneer. Our isolated mountain community, undeniably dependent on outside food, embraces a movement based on local sustainability and independence. But for the individuals involved, these gardens are about small victories that mean big things.

Now in her second season of vegetable gardening, Hailey-resident Manon Gaudreau said her path to improved health and happiness followed a connection with the Earth. She took a gardening class at the College of Southern Idaho in Hailey and joined the Valley Victory Gardeners. She chose a small grassy area in her backyard, covered it with dead leaves and cardboard and added layers of soil from her compost bin.

“I was stunned by the difference in flavor between freshly picked heirloom vegetables and what I used to buy from the grocery store, even if it was organic,” she said.

But there’s something more to it, an intangible that plays to our nurturing instincts. Like building a responsible home or raising a loving family, a garden is about building something up rather than tearing it down—and doing so in a sustainable way.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.