Creating a Victory Garden

Transform your yard and table with a traditional idea

by tj wierenga

Imagine a corner of your backyard, transformed… bushes of plump, delicious tomatoes… fresh herbs like basil for pesto, and chives, oregano, sage… summer squashes that once shredded finely, your entire family will devour mixed into dishes that you regularly cook… the smell of fresh, rich soil and the warm spicy scent of those tomatoes and herbs lifting upward in the summer sun… rows or tightly-planted squares of healthy, vibrant vegetables growing madly in our bright Montana sunlight, so fast that you can almost hear it happening. Throw in a few flowers for color splashes amongst the green, hand your children their own ladybug-patterned rain boots and garden tools (for girls) or bright green frog-patterned boots and garden tools (for little boys), pull up a chair, and enjoy the many benefits of a home garden!

Have you considered your family planting a modern-day equivalent of a Victory Garden? Originally planted during World Wars 1 and 2, these gardens were planted at private residences in the USA, UK, Canada, and Germany to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. A huge success at those times, in 1944 these gardens in America produced up to 40% of vegetables consumed in our country, with some 20 million Americans participating! Simply put, these were home vegetable gardens put in by folks who had, for the most part, no previous experience gardening. While we are not in such difficulties as the world was experiencing during those times, there is currently a huge movement toward the planting of Victory-style Gardens in America.

Amy Grandpre, Horticulture Assistant with the Yellowstone County Extension Service said, “According to the seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a home vegetable garden can result in a 1 to 25 cost-savings ratio.  In other words, that means $50 in seeds and fertilizer can produce $1,250 worth of groceries purchased at a supermarket.  By utilizing the Square Foot Garden system www.squarefootgardening.com , these savings could be increased, as a smaller area is utilized without sacrificing production, making fertilizers, soil amendments, et cetera go further.” Besides the obvious benefits of cost savings, Grandpre reports that gardening payback also includes “fresh food that is very good for you, exercise, stress relief, pride in knowing you can grow your own, sharing with children the wonders of growing plants you can eat, and growing extra and being able to share food with the needy in our community.” It also includes reducing the impact of global warming (our food travels an average of 1500 miles from “farm to table” today), improves our health with our individual control over the use of pesticides on our food, and for families gives us something healthy, fairly easy, and even fun that we can do together.

Don’t have room for a big sprawling garden? Try just a small garden (for example, 2 foot by 5 foot!), or tuck some tidy little bush tomato plants in with your flowers; even potted gardens qualify and do well in our climate here in the Yellowstone valley. There are many vegetables available that can be planted in large pots, buckets, or hanging planters: try carrots, beans, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, garlic, onions, radishes, spinach, tomatoes, bush cucumbers, eggplants, lettuce, bell peppers, even some varieties of zucchini! Herbs tend to be great container plants, as well. Try the following websites for online specials as well as lovely catalogs to peruse for ideas and inspiration, and gardening information:








There are literally dozens of seed and seedling plant companies out there – do a web search and find more! Most offer free catalogs. Be sure to look for plant varieties that can handle the Billings area USDA Plant Hardiness zone 4 weather; if the catalog doesn’t say, you can either contact the company directly for planting information, or go with another variety or company that is specific. Most planting zones in the USA are considerably higher/warmer than our zone 4, so what might work for most of the states may not work in Montana. Likewise, some varieties that do very well here might not work in other states. Grandpre notes “The last frost date for Billings is May 15th.  First frost date is September 22nd, with about 130 frost free growing days” although there are some areas with protected yards, or close to the Rimrock, that will experience zone 5 conditions with a slightly longer growing season. This number of growing days “only limits some of the longer season varieties such as larger watermelon and sweet potatoes.” she said. “It’s always prudent in our region to choose the faster maturing selections of each variety we want to grow, for the most production time.”

Billings Hardware on Grand Avenue is gearing up for their biggest season yet. Gardener should find an abundance of everything they will need for their growing experiences, from seeds to seedlings, soils, compost and mulch, tools and fencing materials, as well as at least one friendly Master Gardener on staff to help with questions. According to store owner TJ Comstock, “We are increasing the amount of vegetable plants by 35% this year; we’re anticipating a really big year. In terms of vegetable seed sales we’re outselling last year and I think that’s probably indicative of the market – folks are trying to save some money by growing some fresh vegetables at home.” Benefits to buying locally include the fact that you can be more assured that the variety is adaptable to our climate, there is often staff available to answer questions, and it is generally much easier for those new to gardening to get started using healthy local seedlings rather than seeds.

Our Yellowstone County Extension Service office has a plethora of help available for beginning gardeners, as well as further information for taking you and your family from “garden newbies” to masters. The county’s Master Gardener’s program, which “started with 9 (participants) in 1994 now has 75 currently participating.  A total of 265 participants have gone through the program; 26 have been State Certified” according to Grandpre. For more information available through the Extension Service and many publications designed to help area gardeners succeed, visit the office during regular office hours in the downtown courthouse, go online to www.co.yellowstone.mt.gov/extension/horticulture, or call 256-2828. Publications include information on container gardening, doing your own composting, hardiness information of different plant varieties, and more.

Gardening is a wonderful family activity; even very small children can get in on the act and help break up dirt clods, water plants, or spread mulch. Planting large seeds like beans or squash (which have the added benefit of quick germination and sprouting) is a great way to introduce the joy of planting to kids. Older kids (even as young as 6 or 7) can have their very own garden plots or containers, and experience for themselves the excitement of plant growth and the well-earned pleasure of helping to put food on the table. And wouldn’t even your non-veggie eaters be more likely to taste something that they themselves helped grow?

Make sure to follow these simple tips to make your garden a success!

Choose a sunny site. Your garden will need at least half a day’s sun. A southern-exposure site would be best.

Consider fencing. Do you have small children or pets that might find a garden irresistible for unauthorized digging? Are there deer or antelope on your property? Fences needn’t be elaborate but they should be both sturdy enough to stand up to weather and use, and tall enough to keep out the specific unwanted “visitors”.

Remember that compost! Compost = feeding the soil. Compost goes into the dirt. If you are starting a new garden, it is a great idea to work in some compost to improve the soil.

Sketch out a simple layout. Give plants enough room to grow and sprawl, but not so much that you are wasting time weeding between plants, or wasting water. Start with something very simple.

Plant only what you will eat. Even if you end up freezing, canning, or otherwise storing surplus vegetables to eat later in the year. If you or your kids hate eggplant, maybe you shouldn’t waste time on them (although tender young eggplant grown in your own garden are much tastier than their sometimes overgrown, hydroponic grocery-store cousins!).

Use seedlings. Most vegetables are easier to grow for beginners using seedlings rather than packets of seeds. Seedlings are small, young plants available in singles, 4-, 6-, or 8-packs at trusted gardening supply stores such as Billings Hardware, or local plant nurseries. Ask for their advice and about their guarantees.

Don’t forget the mulch. Plant your garden, then mulch with up to 4-6” of good weed-suppressing, water-conserving mulch up to within an inch or two of the plant’s base. Use consecutive thin layers of grass clippings, or dried leaves from the previous fall, very clean straw (not leafy, seed-filled hay), shredded or thin layers of newspaper, or purchased bagged mulch.

Just add water! Once your garden is established, water deeply two or three times a week. Soil should be moist to a depth of 6 inches when watered, but permitted to dry out a bit between waterings.

Enjoy the fruits....or vegetables – of your labor!

TJ Wierenga is married mom of two under 3 and lives in Billings with her family.