Kitchener-Waterloo

Wartime Victory Gardens were popular food source - except in Waterloo region

In England, the United States and parts of Canada, governments mandated victory gardens be planted in private and public spaces. But Waterloo region had such a robust farming industry, few went hungry, our food columnist Andrew Coppolino writes.

Waterloo region's robust farming industry helped feed local families

This little garden in Charlottetown, P.E.I., grows vegetables for whomever wants to harvest it. It's a concept not unlike victory gardens of the Second World War,

While beautiful public gardens are not unheard of today, in the past, some gardens served a higher purpose than just looking lovely.

Victory Gardens were part of the war effort during the Second World War to help reduce pressure on food production in several countries.

But a robust economy here in Waterloo region meant the public plots of vegetable, fruit and herbs weren't as necessary as in other areas.

"We've probably got more community gardens now than there were during the war," Kitchener historian Rych Mills said.

Gardens bound the nation

Public gardens have been popular in Canada through two centuries during which there have been so-called "moral" gardens, First World War Liberty Gardens, Great Depression-era Relief Gardens, school gardens and the hugely popular community gardens that we see in numerous neighbourhoods today.    
Dig for Victory people were told during the Second World War. (CanadianVictoryGardens.ca)

In a way, the gardens have bound the nation.

The Canadian Pacific Railway started planting flower beds around their newly built train stations in the late 1800s, and they spread across the country as a nationally organized initiative. Many of the gardens existed until the advent of the automobile when they were torn up to build parking lots.

During wartime, the flower beds were converted into small food-production gardens known as "Victory Gardens."

During the Second World War, government-mandated Victory Gardens were popular in Great Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada.

Between 1939 and 1945, vegetables, fruits and herbs were planted at private residences and in public parks as a patriotic duty on the home front.

In England, for instance, where the need for food was most critical, unused land was turned into gardens and even sports fields were commandeered and used to graze livestock before slaughter.

In Canada, Victory Gardens became very popular as early as 1940, and at their peak near the war's end over 200-thousand of them churned out nearly 57,000 tonnes of vegetables.
A strong farming community in Waterloo region during the war meant victory gardens weren't necessary to keep local residents fed. (Allan Weeks Real Estate Co.)

Local farming met need

So, why weren't Victory Gardens a big part of life in this area?

"Victory Gardens in England [were] a huge thing and I think in all of the countries involved in the war, simply because they could not import their food," Mills said. "Because we had such a wonderful farming area around here – probably the second best land in all of Ontario for farming and producing – there was no need to create government-run Victory Gardens."

What was then Waterloo County had a robust and diversified manufacturing sector that boomed during the war as local industry built parts for the war machine with its rubber, felt and leather companies.

Land mines and bombs were also made here, and all those factory jobs required labour.

We've probably got more community gardens now than there were during the war.- Kitchener historian Rych Mills

Hundreds of workers left area farms in the outlying regions and came into the cities to get well-paying jobs, but even this agrarian exodus didn't hamper food production, Mills said.

"What's amazing is that even though these farms had lost so many people, their production increased during the period of the war, probably because of higher prices, new production techniques, and focussing on one or two crops," Mills said.

Relatively few people in Waterloo region went hungry during the Second World War, Mills noted. While the government did encourage people to grow food in their backyards, there were no government-initiated gardens planted in Victoria or Breithaupt parks.

"The economy was great," Mills said. "When men and women came back from the war, they were staggered by the changes in the city. Setting aside the fact that people lost loved ones, the war gave Kitchener-Waterloo an impetus that lasted for decades."

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.

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