During World War II Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged Americans to plant Victory Gardens. The First Lady planted hers at the White House and some 20 million Americans followed her lead. They hoped to conserve fuel for the war effort and make sure there was enough food to go around.
Now a grassroots movement is spreading around the country to rekindle the tradition. Over the weekend a group of Milwaukee area residents will help plant vegetable beds in yards and shared spaces. It’s called the Victory Garden Blitz. WUWM’s Susan Bence got in on the group’s first planning meeting and has been watching its momentum grow.
Gretchen Mead calls herself a food activist.
Walking up to her Shorewood bungalow, you see raised beds everywhere.
“I definitely think the front yard it a great place to do it,” Mead says.
Her gardening even spills into a neighbor’s yard, where Mead cultivates tomatoes, asparagus and raspberries. Inside, she’s serving tea to a group of people as passionate as she is. Mead gets the discussion going about how they can plant vegetables and fruits in people’s yards and public spaces this weekend.
“I hope this event can be a big shebang,” Mead says.
Jessica Cohodes lives across town. She’s adamant about the importance of this project.
“Because of oil issues, transporting food across thousands of miles and so victory gardening, lawn gardening, any extra space that we have to grow food is extremely important,” Cohodes says.
Cohodes says her motivation is also personal.
“We have double unemployment and two kids,” Cohodes says.
Cohodes hopes to grow enough to share with neighbors who, she says, have it even tougher. The committee settles in and starts to create a “to do” list. They’re dreaming big: why not seek donations of environmentally friendly wood and organic soil.
Nicole Bickham thinks they should set up composting bins and rain barrels for fledgling gardeners.
“As much as we can have it be a kind of a whole system, and that’s part of the education piece, understanding how these things are connected,” Bickham says.
Gradually the discussion becomes more realistic, focusing on how many people will want to start gardens, how many volunteers will show up and what they’ll need. Organizer Gretchen Mead throws out an idea.
“The homeowner would have the materials and have everything ready to go, unless there’s a financial issue. The volunteers would show up with shovels, my circular saw, a drill,” Mead says.
Eventually, the group decides to stage a few practice sessions, because despite their enthusiasm, some members have never created a raised bed garden space. They fan out to several sites, including a shop on Kinnickinnic in Bay View and a school in Shorewood. Volunteer Bruce Rautman is helping at the Bay View project. He’s constructing earth boxes out of big blue plastic drums to grow vegetables on the shop’s roof.
“First of all we cut the barrels vertically in half and then we lay two barrels on each pallet,” Rautman says.
Rautman admits that when he was a kid growing up on a farm in Sheboygan County he hated gardening, but now he can’t get enough of it.
“Are you an organic person, do you go strictly organic,” I ask.
“I would never classify myself as full-fledged organic. I follow them how it suits me and what I’m comfortable with and I think that what many other gardeners do as well,” Rautman says.
The Kinnickinnic shop owner, Lisa Sim, is definitely an organic type. Everything she sells is organic. Sim thinks a restaurant down the street is intrigued with her rooftop vegetable patch.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go there and get a burger with fresh tomatoes, lettuce and onions harvested right from the top of his roof,” Sim says.
Across town, Evan Clinkenbeard is working at the other practice site. He’s among a small sea of volunteers busily installing 20 raised beds. Clinkenbeard thinks of this as his garden.
“I’m a student with New Horizons, it’s a charter school with Shorewood High School. And right now we’re just filling the plots up with soil. And, this is Clint Hays,” Clinkenbeard says.
“So you’ve been involved too,” I ask.
“Yes I have, I helped put the stain on them and helped build them,” Hays says.
Clinkenbeard says he and Clint Hays went to a school board meeting to ask for its blessing to launch the project.
“They originally said no, a little iffy, and then they finally said yes,” Clinkenbeard says.
High school groups will use a few plots, the rest are available to the community. Gil Walter is about to fill one with rich dark soil.
“I recently moved out of my house into a condo and I really miss the gardening aspect of it. This is right across the street from our condo, so it’s perfect for me,” Walter says.
As for this weekend’s planting extravaganza, more than 100 volunteers will be planting their hearts out. While the group has lofty goals, Gretchen Mead is focusing on small accomplishments. For instance, she’s working on a couple who lives down her street. They don’t share Mead’s environmental passion, but did ask her to help plant a tomato bed behind their house.
Next year, she hopes they’ll plunk down a victory garden blitz sign in their front yard.