“Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it.” Yes, I’m quoting Lemony Snicket, (from the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books). In the case of school, home and community gardens, repeating history might not spell doom. In fact, it would be a good thing. Gardening may seem to be an ordinary topic, too mundane and unchanging to have an impact on history. In my book, “Sowing the Seeds of Victory”, I argue that on the American home front during World War I, the call to gardening was new and distinctive, elevated to high public importance. I also make the argument that I believe the same thing is becoming true again today, as a new generation of food activists attempts to change the food system via gardening, urban agriculture, and through a variety of other means.

The WWI Liberty/Victory Garden programs, food conservation and preservation efforts, and school garden programs invited the nation’s citizens to create (or re-create) gardens as a way to recapture an earlier “golden age” in American experience (a golden age that may or may not ever have existed).

The imagery was of republican self-sufficiency, mutuality, and civic contribution. Some of these impulses are reflected in today’s movement. In WWI, gardens were an integral part of American life as a location of national identification and purpose, of synthesis between competing spheres (urban and rural, domestic and public, consumer and producer, immigrant and native-born) during a period of national transition and transformation. Should gardens occupy the same location today? YES (minus the military stuff).

Gardens were also intended to be a place of redemption from any number of ills that plagued American social and cultural life. (They still are). Those who sought to rally native-born Americans and immigrants to the war effort, those who sought to reform the public educational system, groups advancing the cause of women’s rights, proponents of “traditional” producer values, and those who promoted modernity and consumption all embraced the idea of national gardening campaigns. Each group had a notion of how America’s rural past (in both real and perceived ways) influenced and ought to influence an increasingly urbanized and industrialized future.

These different groups shared something else: they sought to change America, and also to synthesize diverse American experiences through the simple act of gardening. Those who participated in these programs had various agendas of their own, including patriotism and identity formation in addition to horticulture promotion. Through their participation, they shaped the programs.

I really like Lemony Snicket, and especially this quote: “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” If you’re empty-handed, remedy that by picking up a copy of my book, lickety-split.

“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”