Real Estate

V is for 'Victory'

Museum's garden mimics those of World War II era

The dedication of Palo Alto's Museum of American Heritage to the history of technological innovation from 1750 to 1950 is reflected today both inside and out, with a newly thriving replica of a "Victory Garden."

Just like in the mid-1940s, when Uncle Sam urged everyone to grow their own veggies, with posters touting "Plant a Victory Garden -- Our Food Is Fighting -- A Garden Will Make Your Rations Go Farther," today's Victory Garden at the museum (or MOAH) is filled to the brim with the same variety of vegetables that was grown back then.

Previously, the old Williams house, where MOAH is located, had a victory garden -- really more of the Williams family working garden -- that was mostly kept up by the husband of the director.

"When he moved, there was no one to maintain (the 11 beds)," said Laurie Hassett, MOAH's executive director.

Landscape architect Girvin Peters, who sits on MOAH's board, approached The Garden Club of Palo Alto to see if they'd take on the project of bringing the old garden back to life.

That planted a seed with Helen MacKenzie, who was president of the club and thought the project fit the club's mission to a T: "assisting in the beautification of public areas of the city."

She recruited Connie Cavanaugh and Eleanor Laney, who rounded up about a dozen club members who set to work researching what plants were grown in 1943. They used everything from U.S. Department of Agriculture brochures to Sunset's "Vegetable Garden Book." After drawing up a long list of potentials, they found quite a few varieties still available, Cavanaugh said.

They then began growing some plants from seeds, along with a few from seedlings that were mostly propagated in people's homes.

The "stalwart people" who volunteered, Cavanaugh said, had a variety of skills and backgrounds, from careers in landscape design or horticulture to photography.

"They had a wide range of knowledge about gardens in the Mediterranean climate," she said. But they also had "a strong desire to get dirty and make things happen in the garden."

By late winter, the beds were cleaned up, soil amended, Diestel turkey compost from Lyngso in Redwood City added, a new irrigation system installed and the seedlings were ready to plant. All the auxiliary materials were authentic to the era, including the wood in the raised beds and the "Florida weave" twine used for holding up the tomato plants. No plastic was allowed.

By July, the radishes and carrots were already harvested; eggplant and several varieties of squash were ready to pick and tomatoes and corn on the verge. The varieties have charming names, including 'Black Valentine' bush beans, 'Boston Pickling' cucumbers, 'Pimento Perfection' peppers, 'White Queen' and 'Alice in Wonderland' squash, and 'Santa Clara Canner' tomatoes.

Still to ripen are the melons and larger squashes, including 'New England Sugar Pie' pumpkins.

"This is not your typical garden," Hassett said. "Some things are very rare."

The committee that agreed to create the garden has made a commitment to stick to the project through the end of harvest, around October. After that they may be seeking more volunteers to help maintain the garden in the future.

And what do they do with all the Victory Garden vegetables, now that rationing isn't the rule of day?

The early harvest has been going to All Saints Episcopal Church, which hosts the Food Closet food giveaway. But, as the garden peaks, the larger harvests will go to St. Anthony's Padua Dining Room in Menlo Park.

"Vegetables take water," Hassett said, adding, "The worst thing you could do is grow them and not have them utilized.

"We need volunteers to help out in all the gardens," Hassett said, to pick the ripening vegetables, as well as to clean the paths and mow the lawn at MOAH. The Garden Club held an open house at the Victory Garden last week to show the garden and encourage more members to volunteer.

Even the committee chair was surprised at how well the garden is doing. "We did not expect the garden to be anywhere near as productive," Cavanaugh said.

Although the committee put in a ton of work, the members also got something out of the project.

"A key learning is how critical it is to amend soil before planting," she said. "This isn't brain surgery, but it's really important.

"Moving forward, it's really well-documented now, so this could be re-created," Cavanaugh said.

And, considering how she might change course if she were to do it again, she acknowledged that this time they overplanted, never having worked this garden before or grown so much from seed.

"We've been doing a lot of pruning lately to give the plants enough space."

What: Museum of American Heritage

Where: 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto

Hours: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free admission

Information: 650-321-1004 or MOAH

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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