Gardening victories: From war gardens to community gardens, Clevelanders have green thumbs

As Memorial Day weekend and the summer planting season approach, the FreshWater staff took a look at Cleveland’s history of community gardening to support the country’s war efforts and help with food insecurity.

Community gardens have historically been a way for residents, community organizations, and schools to combat national food shortages and local food insecurity, teach students the basics of growing food, or even instill friendly competition among those with a green thumb.

In Cleveland, school gardens became popular in the 1890s as both a beautification effort and a hands-on teaching tool. In 1904, the city’s Home Garden Association helped the Cleveland Public Schools launch its program at five schools, and by 1905 the district launched the Department of School Gardens to oversee the program.

West Technical High School’s greenhouses supplied plants and seedlings for the entire school gardening program by 1912, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture praised Cleveland for its participation in the garden movement. The next year, more than 5,000 students participated in gardening, either at school or in their home gardens. 

A 1943 US government poster urging Americans to plant victory gardensA 1943 US government poster urging Americans to plant victory gardens Also early in the 1910s, the City of Cleveland began offering vacant lots to residents who agreed to convert the land into gardens. By 1913, 200 gardeners had been assigned lots as part of a city beautification program.

Gardening efforts strengthened with the United States entering World War I in April 1917 and World War II in December 1941. Wartime inspired Clevelanders to support the war effort by growing “war gardens”—what would become known as Victory Gardens. The war gardens were designed to raise morale and increase support for the war.

In 1917 Cleveland mayor Harry Davis, under his War Garden Commission, planned to turn all vacant lots in the city into gardens, while area companies donated land and school children enlisted in the U.S. School Garden Army—all to grow food for the allies and conserve food on the home front.

Halle Brothers employees grew produce on a 12-acre plot on Case Western Reserve University’s campus, while U.S. Steel Corporation touted the largest employee garden in the city—with 15 acres and 435 gardeners working on the lot at Harvard Avenue and E. 49th Street.

It is estimated 50,000 gardeners in Cleveland and the first suburbs produced $350,000 worth of produce on 5,000 acres of land by the end of World War I.

The effort surged again across the United States during World War II. In 1942 alone, 15 million victory gardens were planted and by 1944, 20 million victory gardens produced eight million tons of food—more than 40% of all the fresh produce consumed in the country.

Clevelanders were eagerly behind the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s encouragement to plant gardens to combat the food shortages and rationing. Many residents had their own gardens.

At the height of the victory garden trend, in 1942, Cleveland mayor Frank Lausche and his administration made plans to create a giant Victory Garden on Mall B, between Rockwell and St. Clair Avenues.

Aerial View of Mall Victory Garden July 6, 1944Aerial View of Mall Victory Garden July 6, 1944Crews broke ground on the Mall in February 1943 and seed planting of 24 vegetables began that May. That summer, garden volunteers hosted an estimated 50,000 visitors who came to see the garden and listen to growing and cultivation classes. An expanded Victory Garden returned to Mall B the next summer.

The Cleveland Victory Garden continued until 1947. The garden site was remade for a war memorial fountain, the Fountain of Eternal Life, in 1964.

Although the larger gardening efforts died down after World War II, Cleveland continues to be a gardening city. In the 1970s city officials worked with the Cuyahoga Country Land Bank to turn vacant lots into gardens, and the Ohio State University Extension and Cuyahoga County organized the Summer Sprout program, which exists today. 

In the 1990s  the Cleveland Botanical Garden launched its successful Green Corps, which pays high school students to learn and work in urban gardens.

Community gardens have made a comeback in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the OSU extension renewing the Victory Garden mission, and many area residents using gardening as a healthy pastime and food resource.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.