How to recreate a Revival garden

07th December 2021
Francesca Clarke

Wherever you are in Britain, one of life’s joys is catching a glimpse of allotment life: bamboo wigwams bright with coral-red runner bean flowers, higgledy-piggledy sheds stuffed with a jumble of tools, and neat bark-chipping paths bringing order to the creative chaos. But what is it like to be part of that happy community of growers? And how can you give your plot a special Revival edge? 


War on want

In the 1930s, England was a land of derelict orchards, neglected scrubland and pastures filled with butterflies, birds and wildflowers. Agriculture and market gardening was in the doldrums, with most foods cheaply imported from abroad.

The allotment situation was equally dire. Ursula Buchan, author of ‘A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War’, explains: “Cities were not well provided with gardens, as housing density was high… Allotment provision in both town and country was patchy.”

When World War II broke out, most imports came to a dramatic halt. Fruit was scarce, onions even scarcer. Britain faced the very real prospect of running out of food. So the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries launched its famous Dig for Victory campaign, calling on Britons to pick up their spades and grow their own. Posters, wireless broadcasts and mascots such as Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete all contributed to the powerful media machine.

Men, women and children rose to the challenge with stoicism, thrift and humour. Public parks were pressed into use for food production and even the royal family turned a section of their garden into an allotment.

The result was quite a turn-around for British horticulture. Gardening became a popular and, crucially, productive occupation, the food from 1.4 million allotment plots supplementing the rations that lasted 14 years from 1940.

Just as important, perhaps, Dig for Victory brought unity, boosted morale and raised awareness about nutrition.


Goodwood Revival Digs for Victory

Shining a spotlight on wartime horticultural endeavours, the Revival saw Goodwood’s very own landscaping and planting guru Steve Christopher recreate a working 1940s allotment on site. At 600 sq ft, the Victory Garden was around a quarter of the size of a standard 10-rod allotment.

The project was an ambitious undertaking, brought to life by a combination of thousands of seeds sown in Steve’s own greenhouse and on the Goodwood Estate, a restored Ferguson T-20 tractor, numerous actors in full 1940s regalia, and plenty of old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears.


Just the tonic

In the 1940s, rations and grow-your-own made the nation the healthiest it had ever been. Communities strived and struggled together. Mark Lang, of UK gardening-for-health charity Thrive, agrees: “A key part of Dig for Victory was keeping the morale of the population high. Gardening at home or on an allotment today has similar benefits and has proven links to reducing stress, anxiety and depression.”

Equally, when we grow our own, using ‘Spades not Ships’, we’re shrinking our carbon footprint, reducing food waste, providing food and shelter for wildlife, and cutting down on the use of harmful chemicals involved in food production.


Seasons of fruitfulness

If you’re keen to try growing your own with an authentic Dig for Victory feel, you’ll need a bit more than a neat victory roll and a jaunty headscarf. Although dressing the part always helps…

Essential to a 1940s plot was productivity. And key to this are three basic principles: crop rotation to avoid soil exhaustion and disease build-up; the planting of catch crops, e.g. fast-maturing spring radishes among slower-to-germinate parsnips; and successional sowing – in other words, making the most of longer growing seasons by sowing crops such as lettuce and peas little and often. Meanwhile, glass cloches helped to protect plants from the cold and damp.

At the heart of all this is good well-rotted garden compost, aka rocket fuel for plants, made from every kind of organic kitchen and garden waste in a simple compost heap. As Steve says, “In the 1940s, people would have made them much more simply, with strips of timber or pallets.”

But what exactly to grow? A promotional poster from the era shows a trug overflowing with potatoes, marrow (wartime advice to plant on compost heaps is still wise today – and works just as well for courgettes, both being hungry plants), peas, tomatoes, cauliflower, beetroot, onions, carrots, turnips, cabbage and broccoli.

This isn’t just a reflection of simple 1940s tastes, it’s also a practical seasonal selection that makes the most of any plot, small or large, covering winter roots, spring brassicas, summer salads and autumn crops to avoid the ‘hungry gap’.

Cinemas helped to educate, too, says Ursula. “Black and white newsreels featured vegetable gardening, often with the message that growers should plan ahead if there was not to be “want”, especially in winter.”

For a detailed explanation of what to plant, when, and how many inches apart, author and smallholder John Harrison’s brilliant website includes many of the original wartime government growing guides. Somewhat authoritarian and practical to the extreme, they nevertheless give a fascinating insight into 1940s growing techniques, many of which are just as useful today.

Gen up on your wartime pickling, preserving and drying, and you’ll have a packed larder to see you through the very harshest of winters. 


Rationing optional

For added authenticity, partner your home-grown produce with World War II rations, as chronicled by Claud Fullwood in her book The Rations Challenge: Forty Days of Feasting in a Wartime Kitchen. In it she experiences the joy of thrift with vegetable scrap stock, while homity pie (made with cheese, plenty of greens and the ubiquitous potato) becomes a family favourite.

Of course, none of this advice is prescriptive. The Dig for Victory ethos is at once very much of its time and topical. We’re lucky enough to be able to pick which elements to follow and which to abandon in favour of convenience or practicality. Choose wisely, though, and we’ll all be richer for it. Inspired? Find out more about the Revival allotment here.

Photography by Toby Adamson.

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