Posted on 05 February 2013 by

Looking Back at the History of Community Gardens and Learning from It

Photo Credit: Our Urban Eden Community Garden by Anna used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

How I love history.

I have come to realize that to move along life one needs to look at the past and understand it before we can move forward.

In my opinion, mistakes are made when we never look at the past and learn from it. The same goes with gardening.

A few years ago, I was enlightened with a saying, which at first shocked me. I am one of those individuals that is a habit keeper.

If it works why change it has in the past been my motto but this saying made a lot of sense so I decided to give it a try. Lo and behold, it worked; so today I live by this simple but complicated motto. The motto I refer to is “if you do things they way they have always been done, then you will get what you have always gotten. “

At this point, one may wonder what this has to do with community garden history. The answer will be clear to you soon after we take a walk down the garden lane past the community gardens of the past.

The first concept of community gardens came about due to high unemployment and immigration in the 1890s. Detroit was one of the first cities to create a community garden for its citizens. This type of community garden was often referred to as a “potato patch.” Here the unemployed could grow food, develop skills and those new to America could learn the American way.

World War I brought on the need for a different kind of community garden. This type was referred to as “Liberty Gardens.” In this type of garden, the government recruited citizens to grow food for the war effort. This way every one could contribute to the war effort. Also during this same period schools became involved in the first United States School Garden Army. Several million children participated in the program along with over 50,000 teachers receiving teaching material that introduced agriculture and food production to the youth.

In the 1930’s, the Great Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression hit. People were out of work, homeless and hungry. To aid this situation and help people to help themselves, “Relief Gardens” were established. These gardens provided food and a job for many Americans during this challenging economic time.

World War II again brought on a different type of community garden. “Victory Gardens,” as they were named were very prevalent in many communities. As a matter of fact, there were victory gardens on the White House Lawn during this period. The federal launching of this program was so successful in 1944 that 44 % of the vegetables eaten in the United States were grown in victory gardens.

The 1970s saw a rebirth of the community garden concept. These gardens were designed to revitalize neighborhoods through plantings, provide food, and create recreation.

Today, community gardens are resurfacing in Detroit again due to an economic downturn. These present day gardens are referred to as “Recession Gardens” and serve as a way of extending ones budget. Many of these gardens are also being used to save communities from the effects of an economic exodus.

So back to my question what does garden history have to do with doing things the same way? I hope our stroll down the garden path has shown that each decade has warranted a different kind of community garden. These gardens were based on the needs of the citizens and the times. Today, we have kitchen gardens again gracing the White House lawn but not for economics or for a war effort but instead to help fight childhood obesity. I wonder what issues the community gardens of the future will address.

So until we blog again, community gardens may come into favor and go out as often as the wind blows but their need will always be there.

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