The Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts, is the oldest surviving victory garden in the United States. The Fenway gardens were established in 1942, at the urging of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Victory gardens were planted on private and public land in the U.S. during World War I and World War II to reduce pressure on the nation’s food supply during wartime. Victory gardens were sometimes called “war gardens” or “food gardens for defense.”
Fenway Victory Gardens is an enormous space, with seven acres in the heart of Boston's Fenway neighborhood. The site is part of Back Bay Fens, the first park in Boston's famous “Emerald Necklace” system of parks and waterways.
Back Bay Fens gets its name from the primary ecosystem of the area. A fen is a wetland fed by groundwater and drainage from surrounding soils. Because fens are fed by freshwater sources, they are not as acidic as bogs and can support a wide array of plant and animal life.
Back Bay Fens
Back Bay Fens was officially established in 1879. By then, Boston's groundwater had become polluted. The city's growing population and a nearby mill had turned the fens into an open sewer.
The city demanded a solution to this stinky problem, and officials turned to Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted had been a chief executive of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, but is most well-known as the father of landscape architecture.
During his lifetime, Olmstead designed dozens of parks, including Central Park and Prospect Park, both in New York City. He also designed the grounds and terraces of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and planned the site of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Olmsted believed that parks should be for the enjoyment of all city residents to relax and enjoy nature, free from the stress of urban life.
For Back Bay Fens, Olmsted turned the tidal pool into a creek (the Muddy River) that wound through the fen, adding native plants that thrived in brackish water. The creek was designed to be flushed out with the tides twice a day. The garden wetland helped mitigate flooding in the area. In 1910, a dam was placed on the Charles River, turning the brackish water into a freshwater environment.
Fenway Victory Gardens
In 1942, President Roosevelt urged Americans to grow fruits and vegetables to supplement the food supply during World War II. In response, the city of Boston and the Boston Victory Garden Committee secured 49 areas around the city to be used to grow food. The area around Back Bay Fens was ideal for planting because it was not wooded and needed little preparation before planting. Boston Common and the Public Garden were also used to supplement the U.S. supply of fresh food.
Victory gardens were seen as essential because while the total output of food had increased, a smaller share was going to civilians. Mandatory food rationing was a part of life during the war. Victory gardens made it possible for farmers to send more of their food overseas to feed U.S. troops.
By 1943, 20 million households produced more than 40 percent of the vegetables that were eaten stateside, and more than 4 billion jars of food were preserved either in home kitchens or community canning centers.
After World War II, federal funding for community victory gardens ended, and Boston’s priorities changed. The city was less worried about growing enough vegetables to feed the city and more concerned with city growth in the heart of Boston. The pressure to tear down the gardens was very strong.
There were three major proposals to develop the Fenway Victory Gardens site. One proposal called for constructing a school on the spot, another called for a hospital. Other developers considered bulldozing the gardens to make a parking lot.
Richard D. Parker, a member of the original victory garden committee during World War II, organized the Fenway community to save the gardens from development. Parker helped create the Fenway Garden Society in 1944 and continued to garden in the Fenway until his death in 1975. In 1979, the gardens were renamed the Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens in his honor.
Fenway Gardens Today
Today, Fenway Victory Gardens is divided into 500 fenced plots. A gardener must be a Boston resident in order to have a victory garden plot.
"It used to be whoever showed up got a space," said Mike Mennonno, current president of the Fenway Garden Society. "But the neighborhood is currently experiencing a renaissance. There's a wait-list now. A gardener must first volunteer and do community service with the Fenway Garden Society before they receive a victory garden plot."
About 25 percent of the plots grow vegetables. There are leisure gardens, flower, fruit, and herb gardens, and perennial gardens.
"We're trying to even out this ratio now," said Mennonno. "The Fenway Victory Gardens contain a series of microclimates that makes growing vegetables in all the plots difficult. The wet areas are near the Muddy River, while the areas near Boylston Street and Park Drive are higher up and are a little drier."
For the gardeners who grow vegetables, popular crops are tomatoes and salad greens, such as kale, lettuce, and arugula.
"Some gardeners practice vertical gardening, which is used to grow gourds," said Mennonno.
The vegetables attract wildlife to the park.
"Squirrels in particular love cucumbers and zucchini," said Mennonno.
In 1999, the Victory Gardens established an ADA-accessible garden, following guidelines established by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). This garden was completely redesigned in 2011. The Fenway Garden Society partners with the Greater Boston Food Bank to deliver surplus food to area soup kitchens. A teaching garden with 17 raised vegetable beds offers workshops for a wide variety of urban gardeners, as well as new members of the society.
"What makes the gardens so interesting is that we have such a large community of gardeners all over Boston," said Mennonno. "We have a little village dedicated to this type of activity. There are federally protected lands all around us, but they and the parks don’t just happen and they don’t just continue to happen. To maintain the gardens also means maintaining the community that maintains the park and the garden."