The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Home Gardening in the United States

It’s said that humankind owes our way of life to agriculture. That is to say the practice of growing our own sustenance and deviating from hunting and gathering allowed us to form roots, and from those roots grew societies which paved the way for the industry that brought us to the stage of development we currently inhabit. At least 12,000 years ago our ancestors began to turn away from the struggle of moving from place to place in search of food and instead began cultivating it and establishing a sense of permanence. From those moments in human history, humanity began to settle the world and in time, the American continent was colonized. By 8,000 BC, the first potatoes were being harvested from American soil, and corn by 2,700 BC.

Nearly 4,400 years later, Europeans began to colonize what we now call the United States. Being as there were no corner stores or markets (the first sprouting up in the mid-1800s), colonialists grew their own produce in small doorway gardens. As village markets became possible, so too did ornamental gardens meant for leisure and aesthetics rather than survival. Eventually, gardens moved to back and side yards of homes and doorway gardens were replaced with lawns, industry of the 1900s grew, and the increase in manufacturing jobs was accompanied by a declined interest in home gardening.

That is, until the 1940s. WWII’s strain on US (and the rest of the world’s) resources gave birth to a new movement promoted by the United States government: the Victory Garden. By 1943, 20 million Victory Gardens grew around 40% of US produce. Even the White House had a Victory Garden under the order of Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. The movement declined in popularity after the war ended and interest waned drastically over the following decades.

In 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin promoted Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year, a tradition continued to this day. While the annual event began as a grassroots movement meant to draw public support for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it also contributed to the passage of several environmental laws. Thanks to Earth Day’s works to make the world more environmentally conscious, interest in growing produce was renewed and “Edible landscaping” grew in popularity. This growth continued right toward the 1990s, which saw some of the fastest urban population growth in recorded US history.

Innovation in small space gardening allowed the rise of edible gardens to continue and as of the early 2000s, the concept has come back to the forefront. In 2009 the Obamas brought the first vegetable garden to the White House since WWII and, as of 2013, a third of American households are growing their own produce. Farmer’s markets have seen a rebirth in towns all over the United States and urban gardening is growing in popularity and development. With increasing importance, households across the United States are once again turning our attention toward a practical and sustainable approach to food access.