Join the war on climate change. Plant a Victory Garden.

This summer, my family was in Eugene, Oregon to help pack up my husband’s boyhood home — a modest ranch house built in a neighborhood of similar homes just after World War II. As my daughter walked the suburban streets, she saw a sign next to a thick waist-high hedge fronting one of the homes.

“Help yourself to our blueberries,” said the handwritten sign.

We did. We picked enough for my daughter to make a Fourth of July blueberry pie. Delicious.

Little did I know then that edible landscapes were a growing trend.

This week, as I researched a story for our Fall Home & Garden section about the Guilderland Community Gardens, one of the gardeners there, Fan Pen Chen, told me that, when she moved to an apartment in Guilderland in 2003 and began gardening there, many of the plots were empty.

She said that, when Michelle Obama started the White House kitchen garden in 2009, interest increased. Now all of Guilderland’s 120 plots are in use, and some of them have been divided into two.

The last president’s wife before Michelle Obama to have a kitchen garden at the White House was Eleanor Roosevelt. Victory Gardens, as they were called then, were planted at homes and schools, and at businesses across the country. 

The gardens aided the war effort — producing 40 percent of the food eaten on the home front — and boosted morale as people felt they were contributing to the effort from home.

There was a practical as well as a patriotic side. Amy Bentley writes in her book, “Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity,” that 54 percent of Americans surveyed during the war years said they grew gardens for economic reasons while just 20 percent mentioned patriotism.

Popular Mechanics magazine wrote in May 1943 that  there were 18 million Victory Gardens in the United States — 12 million in cities and 6 million on farms. About a third of the vegetables produced in the United States during the war years came from Victory Gardens. Some in the agriculture industry saw this as a threat.

Some of the same dynamics are at play now. Many Americans are eager to help ease the greatest threat of our time — climate change. And yet many feel unable to make a difference. 

Green America, a green economy organization, is harnessing consumers’ concerns about chemicals on store-bought produce along with individuals’ desires to combat climate change, urging people to plant their own Climate Victory Gardens.

At the same time, other groups are working to convince Americans to forego traditional lawns in favor of edible landscapes. A 2015 study from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration found lawns in the United States take up three times as much space as the next largest irrigated crop, corn, using 9 billion gallons of water each day, and each year using about 90 million pounds of fertilizers and 75 million pounds of pesticides. And, generally, the lawnmowers that cut lawns use gas and emit pollutants.

Proponents for edible landscapes point out that the United States grows less than half of its own fruit and just over two-thirds of its fresh vegetables.

Edible landscapes not only cut down on the costs and energy expenditures of shipping foods but also increase the diversity of insect populations, create habitats for birds and other wildlife, and provide a home for microbes that make up healthy soil, critical for storing carbon to slow climate change.

The space now filled by lawns — 32 million acres — overshadows the only 16 million acres now growing fruits and vegetables. “This means the space American lawns occupy could provide enough land to grow more fruits and vegetables than are now eaten by the entire nation’s population,” says an article on the Food Revolution Network.

It appears the revolution is already underway.

A 2014 report by the National Gardening Association looked at the number of households participating in food gardening from 2008 to 2013 and found it grew from 36 million households to 42 million — an overall increase in participation of 17 percent in five years.

The fastest-growing segment of food gardeners are millennials, people aged 18 to 34, showing an increase of 63 percent in those five years. Millennials also nearly doubled their spending on food gardening to $1.2 billion in 2013.

Households with children increased food gardening by 25 percent, from 12 million to 15 million in that same time period. There was also a 29 percent increase in food gardening by people living in cities, up to 9 million. And, during the same five years, participation in community gardening went up 200 percent.

This is the biggest boom in gardening since the National Gardening Association, a not-for-profit organization specializing in garden education, began gathering statistics on food gardening in the United States in 1978.

Similar to the motivation with Victory Gardens during World War II, 60 percent of food gardeners were motivated by economic factors.

“While better-tasting food is the most important reason why people participate in food gardening, economic uncertainty was a motivator for a majority of food gardeners,” the report said.

More households raise vegetables than any other type of food, although there were increases in the raising of herbs, fruits, and berries, too. The median size of the household gardens in 2013 was 75 square feet.

Some gardeners are looking at their yards as ecosystems, incorporating tenets of permaculture. The term — a portmanteau for “permanent agriculture” — was coined in the 1970s by two men, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, studying and teaching in Tasmania, a rugged island state off of Australia's coast.

In his “Introduction to Permaculture,” Mollison stated, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

That seems to us like a good model for the preservation of the Earth.

We hope, as our readers absorb the stories of the local gardeners we’ve profiled this week, they’ll see the many benefits to gardening. There is, of course, the health that comes from eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

But there’s also the mental health that comes from tending to plants. Jane Schramm says, “This is my Zen. I come here if I need a mental break. You hear the animals around you. And we’ve met wonderful folks from all over the world.”

Both she and her husband also relish the physical exercise gardening gives them.

And lawyer Matthew Mead says, “I sit behind a desk all week. This is an opportunity for me to get away from my email, get away from my phone — to recharge. I get down on my hands and knees and play in the dirt.”

Maybe the other two-thirds of us should take up food gardening. We’d not only be improving our own health but we’d be improving the health of our planet, one garden at a time.

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