A Century After WWI, a Victory Garden Sows Seeds of Remembrance

The Library of Congress is playing host to heirloom vegetables and traditional growing methods that date back to 1917

cabbage harvest
Gardener Rob Gimpel harvests cabbage from the commemorative War Garden. Architect of the Capitol

Boarded by sidewalks outside the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., a vegetable garden grows. Beans, kohlrabi, radishes, cabbage, lettuce, corn, peas and swiss chard sprouted and yielded produce over the growing season this year, where in the past ornamental flowers have charmed passers by.

The change isn't in response to the popularity of kale, but rather a commemoration far more in line with the Library of Congress' stewardship of history. The plots, cultivated under the direction of Rob Gimpel, a gardener with the Architect of the Capitol, mark the centennial of America's involvement in World War I, reports Kristen Hartke for NPR.

The gardens are meant to evoke the war gardens, Erin Allen explains in the Library of Congress Magazine. Also called liberty and later victory gardens, President Woodrow Wilson encouraged Americans to plant these vegetable patches after food shortages hit a war-torn Europe in 1917.

Gimpel took great care to ensure these gardens harken to the plots of the past. ​​The varieties are historic and the methods are authentic. The neat rows come from seeding patterns popular at the time. Wood tripods support the tomatoes rather than metal trellises. However, the gardening crew did stop short of using traditional pest control methods.

"Honestly, they used some nasty stuff back then like arsenate of lead," Gimpel tells NPR. "So we focused on natural pest control like companion planting, putting marigolds in with the tomato plants and just pulling bugs off the plants by hand."

War gardens did help the country. The MNopedia, an online encyclopedia about Minnesota, notes that citizens planted more than 8 million new gardens, an effort that "provided the nutritional equivalent of meat for a million soldiers for 302 days and bread for 248 days, or an entire ration for 142 days."

Pamphlets laid out potential garden plans and touted the importance of planting, instructed food preservation. Posters aimed to drum up enthusiasm. Some of these ephemera and publications are kept now at the Library of Congress. The Secretary of the Interior at the time, Frederick Lane​ wrote about one of the posters, "I am sure a great many children will find their hearts stirred by the picture, and no older person can look at it without a thrill of loyalty and desire to do his part."

The produce from the modern War Garden will also help feed people. The effort has already donated more than 400 pounds of fresh vegetables to a D.C. food bank.

But there's one veggie in the plot that isn't entirely historically accurate. Gimpel tells NPR that he simply had to grow a giant pumpkin. A more accurate option would have been a pie pumpkin.  "The giant pumpkins weren't around yet for the war gardens, so I fudged that one, but I just really wanted to grow it anyway," he says. His choice is understandable: It's hard to resist the potential for the greatness inherent in squash.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.