Noe Valley Voice July-August 2008

How Green Is My Valley: Victory Gardens

By Hilary Gordon

The San Francisco Victory Garden Project 2008+ has received 250 applications for 15 slots. Not too shabby, but as more San Franciscans hear about the project, the number is bound to grow. Those whose applications are selected will have a home vegetable garden started for them by experienced gardeners, with the materials paid for by the city. Sound too good to be true? It wouldn't be the first time the city of San Francisco got ahead of the curve.

'Our Food Is Fighting!'

This patriotic sentiment, which promoted home vegetable gardening, was published on posters all over the United States during World War II. In the 1940s, civilians showed their solidarity with the war effort by planting "victory" gardens in front and back yards, on roofs, in parks, anywhere where there was a little soil. Photographs from that time show neat rows of vegetables growing in front of San Francisco's City Hall and in Golden Gate Park. By 1945, victory gardens were providing 40 percent of the nation's food. This home food production freed up resources and labor for the war effort, and contributed to the Allied victory.

From the Trenches to MOMA

This history was resurrected when San Francisco artist Amy Franceschini traveled to Belgium with her husband in 2006. As Franceschini was pulling up cobblestones to plant a vegetable garden in front of their home in Ghent, a neighbor woman began calling to her in Flemish. When Franceschini found a translator, it turned out that the woman was telling her that she could be reimbursed by the city for the money she'd spent on vegetable gardening. In Ghent, vegetable gardening is seen as civically and environmentally responsible, and is underwritten by the government.

Franceschini's creative imagination was sparked, and when she returned to San Francisco to complete an artistic installation at the Museum of Modern Art, one of her pieces featured images of the victory gardens of the 1940s, the last time the U.S. government asked citizens to grow their own vegetables. Franceschini's art reflects what she calls "utopian ideas with real world applications."

From the Museum to the Back Yard

The victory garden idea came out of the art museum and into the mundane world when Amy contacted the office of the Garden for the Environment, San Francisco's non-profit demonstration garden at Seventh Avenue and Lawton Street. The GFE's Education Program manager, Blair Randall, was enthusiastic about the idea. "The experience of growing food is, sadly, disappearing," says Randall. "To empower city residents to grow their own food requires as much knowledge as it does materials."

Franceschini and Randall got city support to install a demonstration victory garden at the GFE, showing how much food could be grown in a small backyard garden. The city also helped them to install three food gardens for San Franciscan families in 2007. The labor and materials were free for the families, who in turn promised to care for their gardens without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

This year, the victory garden project will install 15 home food gardens with financial support from the city. Any San Francisco resident can apply for a garden any time of year. Just download the application at or pick up a paper application at City Hall.

Launch the Garden with Baby Lettuce

Brooke Budner cares for the victory garden demonstration at the Garden for the Environment at Seventh Avenue and Lawton. Her advice to home gardeners starting their first food-growing project is: Start small, observe closely, and keep it fun.

A first project Budner recommends is growing baby lettuces for salad mix. Here are her tips:

* Buy baby lettuce starts from the nursery, or start from seed in a planter box or in pots on a windowsill. For a zippy salad, include dill, basil, mint, or parsley.

* Plant baby lettuces in rich soil, in part shade during summer months, full sun in winter.

* Keep the soil moist, especially at the seedling stage. Check every day in hot weather. Don't ever let them dry out completely.

* When the lettuces have several leaves, you can begin cutting one or two leaves off each plant carefully with scissors.

* When they start trying to get tall and flower, they become bitter in flavor. That's a good time to set out another crop. If you start your lettuces from seed, sow more every two weeks for a continuous harvest.

Lots more detailed information on growing vegetables is available. For Bay Area­specific advice, check out Pam Peirce's book Golden Gate Gardening.

--Hilary Gordon

A Summer Victory Garden at Civic Center

Slow Food Nation and Victory Gardens 2008+ are pitching in to create an ornamental and edible garden this summer at the San Francisco Civic Center, in the same site as victory gardens planted during World War II. According to garden coordinator John Bela, of CMG Landscape Architecture (one of many project sponsors), the garden will feature a variety of heirloom organic vegetables and will show off the latest in urban food-growing practices. The harvested food will be donated to people in need, through a partnership with local food banks and meals programs.

The groundbreaking and installation of the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden will take place July 1-11, with planting workshops running from July 12 through Sept. 21. Coinciding with the first harvest, Slow Food Nation will hold a series of events across the city on Labor Day weekend (go to Food donations will be made on Sept. 21, Community Harvest Day.

Bela says the project is looking for volunteers in all sorts of capacities. "You can help by providing seeds or seed propagation space, helping to transplant seed in the garden, cultivating and harvesting vegetables, or all of the above," he says. "We also need volunteers to help build, maintain, and then remove the garden. We are seeking financial support and in-kind material donations. All donations are tax-deductible."

For more information, e-mail Bela at or call 350-8257.