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A WWI-era gardening program is growing in Ohio

A woman in a baseball cap plants a seed next to a sign that reads Ohio Victory Gardens.
Ohio Department of Agriculture
The Ohio Victory Gardens program aims to get more Ohioans planting.

Carrots, cucumbers and lettuce will soon sprout up in Ohioans’ backyards across the state.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and Ohio State University (OSU) Extension are handing out free seed starter packs to encourage Ohioans to grow their own food. The Ohio Victory Gardens program began in 2020 in just eight of Ohio’s counties and has expanded with each year.

Now, the department expects nearly 20,000 Ohioans in 64 counties to participate. Pam Bennett, who directs OSU Extension's state master gardener program, said they hope to reach people who may not have gardened before, but want to try their hand at growing food.

“Hopefully that lights that spark or that excitement for maybe lifelong gardening,” Bennett said.

Inspired by history

The program is modeled after the “victory gardens” that helped combat a severe food shortage during World War I. The U.S. government developed pamphlets encouraging people to transform their backyards, schoolyards and vacant lots into gardens.

Bennett said the state doesn’t have the same widespread food shortage today, but today’s victory gardens still work toward a common good. In Ohio, 1.6 million people are facing hunger, according to Feeding America.

“We still have food insecurity. We still have some issues with people living in food deserts. So we're trying to encourage people in this partnership to grow their own vegetables,” Bennett said.

Back during WWI, Ohioans grew their own food to support the war effort.
Ohio History Connection
Back during WWI, Ohioans grew their own food to support the war effort.

The gardens also worked to boost morale during the war effort, and Bennett said today’s program began with a similar hope. Launched during the pandemic, Bennett said the state hoped gardening could be a source of comfort in difficult times.

“There's also the health benefits of actually working in the garden, the physical benefits and the mental benefits of just being outside,” she said.

How it works

Three hundred seed packets have been distributed to the 64 participating counties’ extension offices. Ohioans who wish to grow a victory garden can pick up their seeds at their local office and start planting.

Bennett said the OSU Extension offices will also aid novice gardeners along the way, offering classes and digital resources on best growing practices.

“A big part of it is hands-on learning. Many of us have demonstration gardens at our county offices or in the county somewhere,” Bennett said.

Small green plants sprout up from a bed of dirt.
Ohio Department of Agriculture
The seed distribution program has grown steadily throughout Ohio since its inception in 2020.

OSU Extension offers recipes, canning instructions and preservation techniques for those who end the summer with a crop of produce. Many participants choose to donate the fruits of their labor to food pantries across the state.

Bennett said the ODA and OSU Extension are working together to secure funding to ensure the program is available to all 88 counties in the future.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.