Dig to Victory - A Hundred Years On
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It’s been 100 years since the beginning of the First World War and no one could have predicted how long the fight would go on or the hardships endured. Through both the first and second world wars, British gardens helped to maintain food supplies during times of rationing and extreme shortages. By 1916, they had become such a problem that any area that could be used to grow food was converted to do so. Gardens soon turned into mini allotments and by the end of the First World War Britain had an additional 3 million acres of farming land.
By the end of 1915, conscription had called up all of the young men who would have usually worked the land, leaving this task to be taken up by the Women’s Land Army as well as any conscientious objectors who remained behind. On a smaller scale, people would soon be transforming their gardens as well as patches of communal land into “Victory Gardens”, designed to produce as much as possible throughout the year. Typical crops would have included beans, peas, turnips, carrots, potatoes, cabbages, beats and parsnips, hardy root vegetables which could be grown without specialist equipment and offer bountiful crops.
The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was introduced in 1914 to govern the lives of all people living in Britain throughout World War 1 and evolved over time. Initially intended to sensor sensitive military information, the act soon came to be an extensive list of thing not permitted during a time of war. The government introduced the power to claim lands and put them to use for farming, and by 1917 they had taken over 2.5 million acres!
Food wise, things were not as bad for the country as they were in World War 2; however the German U-Boat campaign prevented food and other supplies from reaching UK shores from America. In 1918 rationing was introduced and malnutrition began to appear within poorer communities. Ration books were issued to ensure that everyone had at least enough to eat, with garden grown vegetables helping to fulfil the needs of most families. Ultimately this ensured that no one in Britain actually starved during the war.
The term, “Victory Gardens” was not something popularised until the latter years of WW1 however was wholeheartedly embraced from the beginning of World War 2, along with the slogan, ‘Dig For Victory’. By 1939 many of the First World War allotments had been neglected, and most gardens had been converted back to areas of pleasure and relaxation as opposed to provision. During the 1930s agriculture and market gardening was in trouble, mainly due to the importation of cheap food and a lack of growing space. Cities had little space for gardens housing density had significantly increased after the post-war population boom. A quarter of all residential buildings were without gardens in inner London, and this was much the same in the north of England. By the beginning of the Second World War there were estimated only 3,500,000 private gardens in Britain, which would need to be converted to feed a population of around 45 million.
The ministry of agriculture issued leaflets detailing how to get the most from your garden or allotment throughout the year. The entire nation was once again encouraged to transform any suitable growing land they had into mini allotments. Not only did this help with food production, but freed up valuable shipping space for war materials.
By 1943 over 1 million tonnes of vegetables were being grown in gardens and allotments across Britain. Carrots and potatoes were plentiful, and so the ministry urged people to make use of these crops in place of more scarce items. Characters such a Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete helped to support people in making the most of their home grown vegetables, going so far as to suggest recipes such as carrot jam, and using poems and songs to further the campaign.
Fruit and vegetables were not rationed during the war; however certain items did become harder to get hold of, motivating people to make up this loss in private and communal gardens. Gardening and farming on the home front was just as important as fighting on the front lines. The sense of community spirit and the work ethic of the everyday gardener raised morale.
The Ministry of Food distributed a monthly Allotment and Garden Guide full of handy hints and tips for growing throughout the year, a spirit which lives on in our Gardening Guide today! People continued to grow their own foods for years after World War 2 and the Dig for Victory campaign was extremely successful. Importation of food during the war was halved, whilst acreage of land used for food production in Britain increased by 80%!
Today it is hard to imagine a situation which would result in such food shortages, with cheap, readily prepared food so easily available, however it has been discovered that Great Britain never ate as well as they did in wartime. Rationing meant more vegetables were consumed and people were healthier as a result. So why not grab a spade, pick a patch in your garden and get growing!
Fancy growing your own victory garden? Well here’s a handy little guide on doing just that!
First of all it’s all about location, both yours and where you’re going to place your plot. Depending on where you are in the country is severely going to affect the types of vegetables you are going to be able to effectively grow throughout the year. Most victory gardens were made in simple plots, without the reliance on greenhouses or modern farming techniques and so people were encouraged to grow to their strengths. Cooler climates suit hardy root and leafy vegetables, whereas the warmer south is able to grow more temperate produce.
- When laying out your victory garden choose a spot that gets plenty of light throughout the day.
- Prepare your plot by tilling the top layer of soil with a spade and fork to break up the earth.
- Enrich your soil with some good quality peat free compost and mix in some fertiliser to give your veggies the best start possible.
- Create rows running north to south, allowing both sides of your plants to receive equal sunlight throughout the day.
- Plant seeds according to the packet instructions, remembering to space your plants evenly, removing some if necessary as they grow to thin the row and aid the other plants in achieving their potential.
- Water regularly and watch your hard work pay off!