Victory gardens

Gardening during times of upheaval has a long history.
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Mamie Southick (center) shows her garden to judges Clayton W. Bazuin and Mrs. L.D. Englerth in August 1944. Mamie and her husband Arthur planted a 7,000-square-foot victory garden at their home near 44th Street and Division Avenue. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

If you’re tending a garden this summer, you can feel some kinship with previous generations that gardened during tough times. Labor shortages during both world wars meant that farmers could not produce enough food. Citizens planted victory gardens to help fill the gap. To encourage this work, the Kent County Defense Council sponsored annual contests in the 1940s for the best victory garden. In order to qualify, gardens had to be at least 1,200 square feet — space that could be tough to find in the city. The defense council coordinated the use of vacant lots, matching up prospective gardeners with empty land.

In addition to vying for best overall garden, citizens also could submit their produce, canned goods and flower arrangements to garden shows. The Kent Garden Club, which is still active today, hosted a popular Harvest Show in September 1942. The show gave proud gardeners a chance to “display their ‘fruits of labor’ in a competitive spirit.” Whether award-worthy or not, the efforts of victory gardeners were successful at increasing the food supply at a time when it was needed.

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