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Not Just for Kids

The Union Square Demonstration Back Yard Garden and Subsistence Gardens

Image of the Back Yard Garden Demonstration in Union Square Park from the Parks Department’s 1916 Annual Report.

Food shortages during the First World War spurred an interest in raising vegetables at home. Starting in 1916, Union Square hosted a "model back yard garden" where Farm Garden Bureau representatives answered questions from the public about the best way to grow vegetables and what crops to try. A campaign in 1917 ("Do your bit: Help your country and yourself by raising your own vegetables") noted the patriotic benefits of homegrown vegetables (and foreshadowed the community gardening movement of the 1970s): "If you have a backyard you can 'do your bit' and help your country and yourself by raising some of the food you eat. The more you raise the less you will have to buy, and the more there will be left for some of your fellow countrymen who have not an inch of ground on which to raise anything. If there is a vacant lot in your neighborhood, see if you cannot get the use of it for yourself and your neighbors, and raise your own vegetables. An hour a day spent in this way will not only help your country and help your family, but will help you personally by adding to your strength and well-being and making you appreciate the joy of gardening. An hour of sunlight in the open air—even though the sun's rays be slanting in the late afternoon—is worth more than a dozen expensive prescriptions by an expensive doctor." The garden was discontinued in 1928 because of subway construction at Union Square.

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided support for "Subsistence Gardens" in city parks to provide food for the less fortunate. Most of the more than 5,000 gardens used vacant city–owned land, but Parks (despite some reported dissent from Commissioner Moses) allowed some of its sites to be used. In 1937, Parks officials noted that 1,215,270 million pounds of vegetables were harvested, including 330,279 pounds of tomatoes, 87,111 pounds of corn, 86,561 pounds of beets, and 84,913 pounds of turnips. The WPA assigned plots to families, providing supervision and lending expertise. The gardens operated in every borough except for Manhattan and reached their peak in the mid 1930s before WPA funding stopped in 1938.

Operation Flower Power

Operation Flower Power, started under the administration of August Heckscher, allowed gardeners to use parts of 34 parks across the city to grow what they wished. Parks provided lockers for tools and water, as well as providing guidance to gardeners who used 10' by 10' plots to express their whims. The Parks Department approved the plants in advance, and gardeners were made to provide a list of what they intended to grow.

Heckscher was influenced by a 12–day tour of Scandanavia he took in 1967, in which he visited Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the Skansen park in Stockholm, Sweden, and Bergen and Oslo in Norway. The placement of many of these gardens survives to this day as part of the "Greeting Garden" program that helped beautify the entrance points to parks (see in particular St. Mary's Park in the Bronx and Silver Lake Park on Staten Island).

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