For those of us who lived through World War II, the words “victory garden” hold a special meaning. This term, along with catchphrases such as “Kilroy was here” and “loose lips sink ships” represent the turmoil and uncertainty that boiled around us back then.
During the war years, there was a shortage of just about everything. Gasoline was strictly limited, and those who had automobiles were forced to park them for all but essential travel. Each member of the family had his or her own O.P.A. ration book, which held tiny stamps that were torn out by the grocer when a purchase was made. This system ensured that each family received their fair share of rationed food and that there would be some left for those who had not yet shopped.
Most of this didn’t bother us Patrick boys because we used very few of these things in our daily lives. No one drank coffee in our house, so we gave some of our coffee stamps to friends who did. Meat was a rare treat anyway, so what we were allowed to buy was really quite generous as far as we were concerned. In all, people took care of each other and tried in various ways to help in the war effort.
We Patrick boys went from door to door collecting tin cans, which we delighted in flattening with a practiced stomp of our foot, then put the flattened cans in our wagons and carted them to a collection point. From there, we presumed they went somewhere to have something done to them so they could emerge as a shiny airplane or a battleship ready to take on the fiercest foe. Our mothers saved snippets of soap and cans of grease from cooking. This, too, was collected and used in some manner.
People took care of each other and tried in various ways to help in the war effort.
In the meantime, we were all encouraged to emulate our pioneer ancestors (although our own ancestors were not pioneers; they were fishermen from the Aran Isles) and try to fend for ourselves a little more. We were told that we were “soft,” that we had grown used to the idea that food only came in boxes, bags, or cans found in the local grocery store. And so Americans were encouraged to return to the soil and to grow what food they could to supplement the meager rations we were permitted to buy. This was a challenge, and yours truly took it seriously enough to do something about it in spite of the harshest and most gargantuan of odds.
“Where are you going to farm, Sean-o?” Danny quipped as I laid out my plan for a victory garden. “You need a barn and silo thing and horses and cows.”
Even though I was not quite 10 years old, I knew better than that. I explained that I did not plan to “farm” on the scale he implied. Since land was strictly limited in our tenement neighborhood, I had decided to use a plot of soil in back of our apartment building. This patch of grassless dirt was about the size of a one-car garage, and it lay next to the actual garages that were slowly decaying behind the building.
“It’s sunny there and no one uses it for anything,” I explained to Danny. “I asked Mr. Weber if I could use it to grow stuff.” (Mr. Weber was the landlord.) Not only had Mr. Weber agreed to my plan, he also told me I could use the hose that he kept in the basement. That would make my job much easier.
Americans were encouraged to return to the soil and to grow what food they could.
I set to work with a vengeance. Using a shovel normally used for stoking the old coal furnace, I bent my back to the task of preparing the unpromising soil for the upcoming season. I dug and chopped, chopped and dug, turned and turned some more until the unforgiving, clay-like dirt had been churned into a somewhat workable plot of land. I didn’t know much about farming, but I had planted a bean in a paper cup in school as a science project. I knew that if you planted a seed, watered it, and let it have some sun, it would do whatever seeds do underground to bring forth something good to eat.
Danny and Kevin had a wealth of suggestions. Danny was all set for bushels of corn on the cob, while Kevin had the unique suggestion of planting milk bottles in order to grow cows!
John-the-Hardware was the logical source for seeds. His hardware store was packed wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with just about anything a human could want to buy. Nails, screws, chains, rope, knives, scissors, hammers, and — just up by the front door with the pleasant bell on it — a rack with packets of seeds.
One side of the rack held flower seeds. Millions of multicolored flowers seemed to jump right off the packets in a rainbow display of grandeur. But it was the other side of the rack that I was interested in. Here were envelopes with seeds for cabbages, beans, peas, lettuce, kale (whatever that is!), endive, and lots of other vegetables that looked mouthwateringly good. The lush red tomato seeds were especially tempting, but there were so many varieties I had no idea where to start.
Danny and Kevin had a wealth of suggestions.
Faced with so many choices, I decided that the logical thing to do was ask John-the-Hardware, who knew everything about every item in his vast array of goods, what I should plant. No matter what my own farming intentions were, I vowed to listen to him.
“Here,” John said, handing me a packet of seeds. It showed a picture of a brilliant red radish. “Radishes are an early crop and can grow pretty much through the whole season. You plant them thick and then thin them out as they grow. You stand a good chance of having a nice garden if you plant these according to the instructions on the package.”
When I got back home, I opened the envelope and saw what had to be at least a million seeds. I decided to plant several packets in my victory garden so I could take advantage of every inch of soil Mr. Weber had allowed me to use.
I started out by making little lines in the soil, then put seeds in the trough formed by the lines. Then I gently covered them up and turned on the hose to water the seeds, setting the nozzle on a fine spray so the water would fall like rain instead of washing the seeds out of the ground.
Over the next few weeks, word of my radish farm spread through St. Columbkille school. Although my entire class had done the bean experiment the year before, none of us had had any real farming experience, so I was a novelty among my peers.
Word of my radish farm spread through St. Columbkille school.
“Why only radishes, Mr. Patrick?” Sr. St. Enda, who was the second-grade teacher, asked. “I would think you would want a grand variety of things.” I explained that I was trying out my skill as a farmer and that perhaps, if I was any good at it, I might expand as the weather allowed.
To my delight, the radishes flourished. Soon the barren, dark soil was striped with lines of green shoots. As the radishes continued to grow, the green began to spread and to turn leafy.
When John-the-Hardware heard of my initial success, he came to see the garden for himself. He showed me how to thin the crop by plucking the obviously weak stems in order to make room for the stronger plants. Although I hated losing any of my precious little stems, I did as he suggested and was rewarded in a few days by thicker, stronger leaves and no significant lessening of the lines of green foliage I prized so much.
My morning and evening watering sessions had become an event as friends and family gathered to watch. Even Danny and Kevin were impressed.
“What do I do when I pick them?” I asked John one day. By now the tops of the radishes had broken through the ground and it was obviously time to begin harvesting some of them. John laughed and said, “Plant more!”
Even Danny and Kevin were impressed.
And so that evening I began pulling out the strongest and largest radishes I could find. In a short while I had filled a peck basket, and the garden looked every bit as full as before I started harvesting!
When the radishes were washed, I gave Mama the first one to try. We all watched as she carefully examined the flawless red skin of the pungent creation. Then, biting into the radish, we heard a crisp “snap.” That meant my radish was firm and true. Mama smiled and I grinned back.
“It’s very good, Sean!” — the ultimate compliment!
From that point on, I pulled radishes on a daily basis. Then I would smooth the soil and plant new seeds, because John had assured me that my crops would continue until the frost returned in the fall. But I soon had more radishes than I had ever seen in my life. Worse, I had no idea what to do with them.
My problem was solved and my reputation as a farmer made firm when I stopped by Mr. Munstein’s grocery one day to show him a sample of my radishes. The grocer held it in his fingers and examined it for any possible flaw. He sniffed it and fluffed through the green leafy top. Then, as a final test, he carried it over to the box where other radishes lay, ready for sale.
Mr. Munstein asked how many radishes I could provide, and I told him what I felt I could produce on a weekly basis. Danny, who had accompanied me on this journey, stood astounded as I made a deal with the grocer to trade my radishes for other vegetables every week.
Mr. Munstein asked how many radishes I could provide.
“This way,” I explained to Mama and my brothers that evening at the supper table, “my garden will give us all sorts of good things. I may only grow radishes, but we end up with lettuce and celery and good stuff like that, too!”
Naturally, we kept some radishes for ourselves and gave some to our neighbors, as well as the priests and nuns at St. Columbkille. The radish supply seemed to be endless until the frost of September brought a close to my first year of “farming.”
Sr. St. Mary, my teacher when I returned to school in the fall, told the story of my victory garden to the entire class as I basked in the light of fame. She went on to tell how I turned my sole crop into an abundance of fresh vegetables by trading with the grocer.
I was proud of my accomplishments, but that pride was quickly tempered when Sister went on say, “So, Mr. Patrick, you were in partnership with God in a way, were you not?” I nodded and smiled.
I was proud of my accomplishments.
I still have a garden. Since the time of that first “farming” experience, I feel there is something special about what I have had a hand in growing.
Oh yes — even though my crops have branched out over the years, there is always space for a few radishes every time I plant.