“Vegetables for Victory!”: Canadian War Gardens during the First World War

Victory Garden on front lawn, Crescent Road. [c1916]. William James Family Fonds, City of Toronto Archives, F1244.
Victory Garden on front lawn, Crescent Road. [c1916]. William James Family Fonds, City of Toronto Archives, F1244.
By 1916 the war had dragged on for two long years, and it was becoming obvious even to the most intractable optimists that the war was likely to last for several more. The fight was no longer a question of a breakout or total victory, but which side could outlast the other. Mass mobilisation for the war effort in Canada meant that communities were involved in the war effort as never before.

Canada had to supply not only its own army and civilians, but those in Britain as well. The Empire had relied on imports for centuries before the war, but the need by 1916 was enormous. Clearly, a more standardised approach would be needed in order to ensure that Britain received its supplies and that the citizens of Canada still had enough to eat.

In 1917 standardisation began with the formation of the Canada Food Board, which regulated food prices and oversaw food production. One of the ways that the Board sought to encourage self-sufficiency, particularly for city dwellers who did not have access to farms, was to put to work the “slacker land” of the urban landscape; the empty lots, allotments, back yards, and alleyways that were unused. War gardening had begun.

Like the Victory Gardens of the Second World War, war gardening was a volunteer effort. Communities were encouraged through public notifications and resources, such as recipes for canning and instructions for planting. Civilian aid and services groups, like the IODE and others, also encouraged gardens and even provided instruction at schools so that children could grow their own food as well.

After the entry of the United States into the war, the Allies (as they were now known) moved to standardise their food production even more. The first conference of the Allied Food Controllers in London in 1918 noted that 70% of the deficiency in essential food products, meaning wheat, meat, etc., would have to be made up by Canada and the United States. Public gardens were to become even more important than before in supplying local nutrition if the war continued on until 1919.

Though it turned out that public gardens were not needed in 1919, since the war ended in November 1918 with the surrender of the Central Powers, the Canadian government had learned some important lessons in the last years of the war regarding food supply. During the Second World War, the use of public war gardens in cities started almost immediately, as this time around Canada did not plan for a short war.

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