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Can a victory garden beat hard times? Ask Kitty

During World War II, tens of millions of patriotic Americans joined the war effort by growing their own food. Today, says 85-year-old columnist Kitty, a victory garden can help you win a different kind of battle — over economic challenges.
/ Source: TODAY

Spring is just around the proverbial corner, which means it’s none too early to start planning (and even planting) a garden. Flowers are pretty and smell nice, but I’m talking about something more practical — saving money in these challenging times by growing your own food.

What you can grow and when you can grow it depend on your location and your climate (click here for more information about that). Where I grew up, in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, we grew quite a lot of things: lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, green beans, corn, garlic (which not only was handy to have in the kitchen, but planting it between other crops helped repel bugs and the occasional vampire), peppers, potatoes (they came in last, in late fall) and kale. (We tried pumpkins late in the season too, but they never seemed to get very big.)

Tomatoes for breakfast
We also had fruit trees, and lots of berries. Blackberries and blueberries were put up in jars and stored in the root cellar to provide jam all winter, and elderberries went into my father’s elderberry wine.

The garden was my father’s domain. After turning all the soil by hand, he’d plant his seeds — all except the tomatoes, which he grew from starter seedlings that came in flats, and the onions, which came from onion sets: little bulbs that he planted in early spring (today you can order them online as well as buy them at your local nursery). Believe me, there is nothing zestier to add to a salad than onions straight from the garden; I can still remember how they tasted.

As for the tomatoes, they went into everything: tomato sandwiches for lunch, hot chili sauce in a soup bowl with fresh bread for supper, fried green tomatoes (yes, just like the movie) for a treat. Even breakfast: Miners like my father often started the day with stewed tomatoes.

We kids helped with the watering, using big sprinkler cans filled with rainwater gathered in a barrel, and everybody pitched in at harvest time. But my father was very much in charge of the gardening. It was a big point of pride for him, and only more so once the victory garden movement started.

Red, white and greenWhen World War II came along, the government encouraged everyone to grow their own food to lower the price of vegetables needed to feed our troops. It was considered your patriotic duty, and people responded; it’s estimated that 40 to 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. in 1942-45 were home-grown!

There were personal benefits, too; everything was rationed then, even shoes, and by growing your own produce, you could use your quota of ration stamps to get other things you needed.

By this point I was going to nursing school in Buffalo, N.Y., where it seemed like everybody was catching up with my father. People took out all the grass in their yards to make room for victory gardens; vacant lots, ball fields and even parks were taken over. There was friendly competition over who had the best garden, but the overarching feeling was one of patriotic pride in helping with the war effort. After all, didn’t Eleanor Roosevelt have her own victory garden at the White House?

Today, with the country embroiled in a different sort of national struggle, some are calling for a White House garden again, such as the chef Alice Waters. And even if you’re not a “locavore,” you can save money by growing some of your own produce.

Where to begin? The closest office of the Cooperative Extension System of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is an excellent place. These folks have offices in every state and territory in the union staffed with experts on just this sort of thing; you can find your nearest office by clicking here. I’ve also put links to some other useful resources for home gardeners below.

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, and don’t worry about making mistakes; if one thing doesn’t grow, something else probably will. Along with growing vegetables and taking some of the pressure off of your budget, you may also find yourself nurturing other things: a connection with nature, and a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.

For more information about starting your own victory garden, visit:

Kitty Schindler, 85, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click .