Dig For Victory: An American History of Gardening

As we celebrate the birth of our country this Independence Day, we take you on a historical journey through gardening in America, from the first Colonial kitchen gardens, to the urban patio of today.

Turns out, digging in the dirt makes you a true patriot, my All-American green thumb.  From the first peoples who roamed the prairies and forests to the first Colonists, gardening has sustained life in America and has helped make this country what it is today.


As we celebrate the birth of our country this Independence Day, we take you on a historical journey through gardening in America, from the first Colonial kitchen gardens, to the urban patio of today.




The first English settlers in the New England colonies built raised, rectangular gardens just outside the home. Without the luxury of grocery stores, they survived off their vegetable gardens, and grew their own medicines and herbs right outside their kitchen window.


The size of the garden was proportional of that to the family. Families would grow vegetables in small beds close to the house. Called Dooryard Gardens, these were typically enclosed by wooden fences and brimmed with the vegetables, flowers, and herbs to sustain a family.




Life on the frontier demanded gardens for surviving and living well. Gardens were kept in a lot closer to the house, as gardening was considered women’s work. The general Mercantile in the American west was unreliable, pricey, and poorly stocked, as materials had to be shipped in from the east. Families had to rely on their “kitchen gardens” to survive.


Early 1900’s


At the turn of the century, Americans were swarming like flies to the bright lights of the big cities, where there were grocery stores and stately homes in urban areas. Americans worked their manufacturing jobs and left their rural gardens behind. Instead, ornamental landscape gardens became all the rage, and gardening shifted to add more beauty to the home.




The call of World War II sent Americans back to their gardens, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged the public to fight food shortages by growing their own produce. By 1943, 20 million “Victory Gardens” supplied more than 40 percent of all American-grown produce. Even President Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the white house lawn.


1950’s – 1960’s


Gardening lightened up a bit in the 1950s, when it was common to see mass produced decorations hanging out among the flowers and lawns of suburban America. Pink flamingos, plastic deer, and garden gnomes stood beside the well-manicured, well pruned foliage. The 1950’s garden explored fun pops of color, with big, beautiful statement plants.


Perhaps more unsettling, “Atomic Gardens” became all the rage in the post-war era. According to Wikipedia, “Atomic Gardening is a form of mutation breeding, where plants are exposed to radioactive sources, typically Cobalt-60, in order to generate mutations, some of which turned out to be useful.”


That’s right – fission energized carrots. These gamma gardens produced plants that could withstand adverse weather or grow faster.




The 1970’s marked the dawn of the Community Garden. During the financial crisis of the 1970’s urban landscapes across America were dotted with dead zones, where development had become neglected and torn down. Garden organizations across the country saw these urban environments as the perfect opportunity to grow some plants, giving rise to the Community Garden movement that would add beauty and health to American city streets.




Xeriscaping was born in the 1980’s, which eliminated the need for water or irrigation in the home garden. These low-maintenance gardens were popular in dry, arid parts of the country where drought was common. As you can imagine, this gave rise to cacti and succulents spotting the American garden and landscape.


1990’s – Present


Urbanization has defined much of America for the past 30 years, as a significant part of the American population live in urban areas. Gardens are still doing well in city high rises, condos, and apartments in thanks to container gardens. Container gardening (also known as patio gardening) is perfect for the individual or small family living in the city – it allows them to grow their own food and herbs, while also serving as decoration. It gives urban dwellers a chance to cultivate greenery in their everyday lives.


From the dawn of America to the patio of today, Americans are raised on gardens. Gardens have seen us through the early days of rugged frontier life, through war, and through cultural shifts into city life. The next time you pick up your shovel, think of the many before you who have done the same, for the sake of American-grown produce on our kitchen tables.

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