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Victory gardens nourished bodies and souls in uncertain times

My Grandpa Parmenter was an auto parts salesman who had a pen collection like no other.

He must have traded other salesmen – “I’ll give you a Big A Automotive for a Michelin” – and I think he must have gotten the better of them because when I was kid, I could have sworn the pens he had in his pocket were made of gold.

He was also a gardener. My grandparents’ home sat on the sloping Mancos shale that is the Crestview neighborhood. I remember a cherry, apple and maybe an apricot or peach tree on the property, and down at the lower level sat his vegetable garden. I don’t remember how big it was, but knowing the size of these lots, it couldn’t have been more than 500 square feet.

Grandpa grew it, grandma canned it. She made these sweet pickles that were neon green and amazing cherry jelly. Someone made chokecherry wine that I have some blurry memory of stealing sips from and getting awfully sick.

I regret not talking to him about that garden more before he died in 2001. At that point, I was into vegetables, getting my masters in horticulture back east. He could have taught me something that the books never could: why he gardened. Was it an expectation that many from his generation held? Was it to escape the day and find a moment for himself? Was it to grow cucumbers that would magically turn neon green?

Born in 1918, my grandpa could very well have been a product of a generation. His family had a victory garden. Growing out of World War I (see what I did there?), the victory gardens were the brainchild of Charles Lathrop Pack, who started the National War Garden Commission, encouraging Americans to grow and store their own food. See, if you grow your own food, then the crops produced by farmers could go to the troops overseas. They encouraged people to convert backyards, parks, school grounds and even vacant lots to gardens – the same message many of us push today.

Jump forward to World War II (grandpa would have been in his mid-20s), and the victory garden re-emerged in American culture. Citizens were asked to start rationing food (half a pound of sugar per week!) and part of that was the incentive to grow your own food. Just think: What if our government held a press conference telling us that if we don’t start growing our own kale, then they would start rationing a family to 10 leaves per week. My kids would be so stoked.

By 1944, there were an estimated 20 million gardens that produced 8 million tons of food – ugh, squash again? Patriotism in the form of food production.

Seventy-five years later, we once again see the need to grow our own food, if we can. I’m not preaching the end to agriculture or practicing fearmongering to get you all to take my Master Gardener course. But when the future looks a bit uncertain and store shelves look a bit bare, it can be a good idea to know how to grow food.

Be on the lookout for online classes taught by Colorado State University Extension in the next couple of weeks. We want to help you all grow good food. Fresh food. Food from your own backyard.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.

Darrin Parmenter