‘Victory gardens’ offer safe supplemental food, quiet recreation in uncertain times

By: Brian Louwers, Eric Czarnik | C&G Newspapers | Published April 2, 2020

 The Detroit Arsenal of Democracy Museum constructed the “Veterans Victory Garden” at Warren’s Veterans Memorial Park in 2017 with grant funding from The Home Depot Foundation.

The Detroit Arsenal of Democracy Museum constructed the “Veterans Victory Garden” at Warren’s Veterans Memorial Park in 2017 with grant funding from The Home Depot Foundation.

Photo by Brian Louwers

METRO DETROIT — Community service. Self-reliance. Shared sacrifice. 

Like seeds sown in the warming spring soil, ideals that rose to the surface in times of war inspired millions of Americans to grow “victory gardens.” During World War I and World War II, people tended plots on empty lots, preserved food and saved seeds, or raised chickens in their backyards as a way of fighting on the home front against an enemy far away. 

These arts are perhaps no less important now, in a world where the home front is the front line in the battle with COVID-19.


Rooted in history

Securing a safe source of food for your family, supplementing community food programs that support those facing financial struggles and lessening the burden on the regional food supply network are but a few of the benefits of growing your own fresh fruits and vegetables, keeping backyard chickens or bees, and preserving what you’ve harvested for any lean times ahead.    

“It was a way of people feeling that they were a part of the war effort. People actually tilled up their grass in their backyards, made gardens, and any available open land plot in the urban areas were turned into victory gardens,” said John Lind, the director of the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy Museum. 

Lind said victory gardens reached a peak in the United States in 1944, when more than 20 million gardens produced almost 40 percent of what was grown in the United States. 

“People were allowed to sell or barter their produce,” Lind said. “Every food staple, everything was rationed in the United States except for two things: alcohol and tobacco products.”

Flea markets and farmers markets grew in popularity during the war and morphed into the catch-all markets we see today.

What wasn’t consumed on the family table was shared with neighbors or canned for use during the colder months.

Kelly Colegio, a former Warren City Council member, helped establish a network of community gardens in Warren and called for an ordinance change that would allow residents to keep up to three chickens. A proponent of community self-reliance, she’s an avid gardener, a master canner and an ardent seed saver.

“America has a history of turning to gardening for self-reliance during hard economic and trying times. We can learn from our grandparents who grew ‘victory gardens’ to provide food for the family table,” Colegio said. “Canning and gardening are skills Mom taught me that have enabled me to always be prepared for tough times, as well as seed preservation for hope for the next season.”

The federal government, through the Office of War Information, printed posters inspiring the nation’s victory gardeners and young people to “Can All You Can,” to “Grow Your Own, Be Sure” and to “Work on a Farm This Summer.”

Those who tended gardens not only harvested food: The activity of shared labor and contributing to the greater good was credited with boosting morale on the homefront, even when supplies were scarce.

The Detroit Arsenal of Democracy Museum constructed the “Veterans Victory Garden” at Warren’s Veterans Memorial Park in 2017 with grant funding from The Home Depot Foundation. Through its garden outreach, the nonprofit museum supports a network of community gardens at churches and nonprofit sites in Macomb and Oakland counties. Volunteers from various churches tend the gardens and each site supports a local food pantry or nonprofit organization dedicated to providing fresh food for veterans, senior citizens and those in need.


Brave enough to turn chicken 

In an age when the grocery store shelves are bare due to stockpiling or panic shopping, some metro Detroit communities allow chicken raising as a way for residents to acquire their own eggs. 

For instance, Warren has an ordinance that lets residents obtain a permit to raise up to three hens to lay eggs for noncommercial use, but it bans roosters. The ordinance also regulates chicken coop conditions to keep vermin away, keep the birds healthy and prevent the fowl from becoming a public nuisance.

The ordinance idea hatched after a resident wanted to have a few chickens because she was looking for fresh food and wanted to become more self-sufficient. Colegio said she was excited to see Warren’s council unanimously approve its chicken ordinance in 2018.

“During this difficult time that we’re all living in, I’m hopeful that America will wake up and turn back to some of the ways that our grandparents lived in regard to self-sufficiency, in regard to gardening, to … being closer to your food,” she said.

Ferndale also has a chicken ordinance. Laura Mikulski, a Ferndale City Council member who also runs a Ferndale Chickens website, said Ferndale created a chicken ordinance in 2012 and amended it in 2018 to increase the number of chickens, with permit, allowed from three to six. She said Ferndale’s ordinance is based on other communities’ best practices as well as GAAMPs, aka Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices.

While Mikulski is an advocate of chicken raising, she downplayed expectations of making backyard chicken eggs one’s sole protein source.

“I’m going to be completely blunt — when it comes to chickens in quantities that are typically allowed, it’s not really cost-efficient to rely on them,” she said.

The biggest upfront expense is usually establishing the chicken coop to make it vermin-proof, she said. She said her coop cost around $700. After that, the chickens themselves cost around a buck apiece, and a bag of feed costs around $20. Veterinary care for chickens can be very expensive for those keeping chickens more as pets, she added.

Mikulski said a hen in peak-production egg laying conditions may produce an egg once every 25 hours or so, and such production may be influenced by age, health and lighting.

“In the dead of winter … unless you use supplementary light, then the chickens stop laying eggs a lot of times,” she explained. 

Sterling Heights is an example of a city that doesn’t allow chicken ownership for the average resident. According to Sterling Heights City Development Director Jason Castor, one needs an 8-acre parcel of land before it is legal for nondomesticated animals to dwell there. 

“The city has not experienced any significant interest from its residents to have small livestock of any kind,” he said in an email.

But Castor said the city currently has no restrictions on private-use residential gardens. 

“Size is not limited, but gardens should be located behind the home, should not be placed on top of any easement for public utilities and should not block overland drainage,” he said, later adding, “While the city has had one or two inquiries about gardens, there does not appear to be a widespread concern at this time.”

Learn more about the Ferndale Chickens website by visiting ferndalechickens.com.