Saanich Cottage Garden Societies in the WWI era

Part Two – Let us help to win the war by the food we can produce!

“As there would be a wide world shortage of food shortly, the [Saanich] Council was asked to do all it could to stimulate interest in cultivating vacant lots…the chief duty for those not at the Front was to increase food production…”

The Daily Colonist March 21 1917
“Increased production… is the slogan for 1918. Twelfth Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture
The Daily Colonist April 19 1918

The origin of the Cottage Garden Societies in Saanich lies in the impending food shortage as the world went into its fourth year of war. This story from The Daily Colonist on March 28 1918 explains the problem:

At the Wilkinson Road Methodist Church on Wednesday a very successful meeting was held under the auspices of the Cottage Gardeners’ Society of Ward Four.

Mr. F.A. Pauline M.P.P. occupied the chair and his very appropriate remarks were directed towards the question uppermost in the minds of all Canadians, the raising of bigger crops of all descriptions, the conserving of food and the release of food that will help to send to the troops in France. The motto for Canada today was: “Fight or farm!” If we cannot farm in a large way, let us cultivate a vacant lot. Astounding results would be obtained if everyone in Canada would cultivate a cottage garden. The honour of the Empire must not suffer. Our fighting men rely on us. Let us help to win the war by the food we can produce.

Professor Stevenson, B.S.A., M.S. of the Dominion Experimental Farm was then introduced and gave a most interesting and helpful talk on “Greater Production!” He remarked that J. Robertson, the Food Advisor, said that one million people in Europe would starve if we did not wake up and produce more food. We must stop the expensive importation of food and grow more. One hour a day spent in work in the garden will keep a household in vegetables and small fruits throughout the year.

A few months later, F.A. Pauline reinforced this message in his opening remarks at the Ward 2 garden show: “Those who have a well-kept garden find it a source of joy as well as profit, and have in addition to the satisfaction of knowing that they are “doing their bit” as well, in as much as it devolves upon those left at home to keep the pot a-boiling for both themselves and for the men doing the actual fighting. Multiply the gardens represented here by a thousand and you have a mighty weapon to aid in the fight for freedom.”

Vacant Lot Cultivation?

The cottage garden story starts in Spring 1917 when the City of Victoria was planning plough vacant lots and plant potatoes. On March 7 1917, a news item appeared in The Daily Colonist, “Buying seeds and ready to plough”: “The City of Victoria’s committee of experts on increased production through the cultivation of vacant lots and backyards decided to buy five tons of the best seed potatoes…The committee will start at once to plough vacant lots…Vacant lots for cultivation can be got in almost any part of the city just for the asking at the City Hall.”

Ten days later on March 17 1917, a story appeared in the Victoria Daily Times stating: “The district municipalities are joining with the city in supporting production and various schemes are under way which will bring into service the lots staked during the [pre-war property] boom, but which have hitherto raised nothing but a healthy crop of weeds. Cottage garden clubs are very popular in some parts of the Empire, where climatic conditions are less favourable than in and around Victoria.”

What is a Cottage Garden? Originally, the purpose of the cottage garden was to provide food. It contained livestock, herbs, fruits and vegetables. Flowers were an optional extra and tended to be ones that had some practical value, such as seasoning food or repelling bugs. The cottager’s small plot did not allow for any wasted space, so the garden was abundantly packed, but well tended. (Source: The UK Cottage Garden Society (accessed June 7 2021) The purpose of Cottage Garden Societies was for community members to learn about food growing and to compete for prizes. An underlying purpose was community building, working together for common good.

Saanich Council minutes March 20 1917. Credit: Saanich Archives

The District Municipality of Saanich supported home production via cottage gardens but was not on board with using vacant lots. On March 20 1917, the Saanich Council debated this issue. The report from The Daily Colonist on March 21 1917 shows the positions of some of the Saanich Council:

“This scheme is a patriotic as well as a splendid one,” said Councillor Carey (Ward 2), and everyone should assist in doing their bit. Victoria is offering all kinds of inducements and pushing the matter ahead. In Saanich we have been always doing as much as we could in cultivating vacant lots.

“I suggest that this question be laid over” said Councillor Diggon (Ward 7). “I know what they are doing in Victoria and I don’t think they are making much progress. Saanich is a very different territory from Victoria and all the people who come to live in this district come to farm and need no encouragement.”

“This is certainly a great movement,” said Reeve Borden, “No one knows what the conditions will be in the near future and we should stimulate all the interest we can in cultivating vacant lots. If you watch the wagons on the roads you will find them laden with vegetables and fruits coming from the city for Saanich residents who should produce these things themselves. We should spend some time and consider this question. It is a patriotic movement and would be an advantage to Saanich.”

Councillor Henderson thought the movement an unfair one. Farmers in Saanich were paying heavy taxes and some of their crops have been spoilt by the weather conditions and he thought that by supporting this movement farmers would leave the district as there would be no demand for vegetables or fruits.

It was moved that the principle should be endorsed and the council will do all it can in aiding Cottage Garden Fairs to encourage production, but as there were different conditions in Saanich to those prevailing in Victoria, nothing more could be done.

The twin motives of Patriotism and Production have already worked to practical results in the case of Ward Two Cottage Garden Association, an organization which is only seven months old as yet.

Victoria Daily Times September 10 1917

In Spring 1917, Ward Two, Saanich wanted to get municipal funds to promoting a Cottage Garden Exhibition. On March 6 1917, Ward Two Councillor William Carey asked to take $150 of his Ward appropriation, “for the purpose of holding a cottage garden exhibit, with a view to stimulating interest in the cultivation of vacant lots. The speaker stated that the money would be used in purchasing seeds for the school children who would be encouraged by their teachers to grow vegetables in their gardens at home. Besides this it was thought that it would be well to offer several cash prizes. When the time came that the various vegetables throughout the district were matured the exhibit would be held. A capable judge would be secured to determine who were the most successful cultivators in the Ward.” (Victoria Daily Times March 7 1917)

Saanich Council minutes March 6 1917. Credit: Saanich Archives

Other Saanich Councillors hesitated to support the plan. Councillor Diggon wanted to wait until they could find out if the plan was the most efficient one. Maybe they should hold a Saanich wide competition. Councillor Tanner (Ward 6) was not in favour of spending the public money to promote any scheme which was confined to the members of one ward. “For my part I cannot consent to any such action being taken until we inquire thoroughly to see whether it will prove a success.” Councillor Carey said “It is absolutely impossible for the people of my ward to compete with Gordon Head farmers in the raising of vegetables and for this we desire to keep the exhibit of a purely ward nature. If it is spread over the municipality there is bound to be trouble.” But Councillor Jones (Ward 1) and Councillor Somers (Ward 3) supported the plan, as we can see below from the Council minutes.

Saanich Council minutes March 20 1917. Credit: Saanich Archives
Saanich Council minutes September 4 1917. Credit: Saanich Archives

Ward 2 got its money for a Cottage Garden Society. A few months later, and William Carey was inviting the Reeve and Councillors to the [First] Annual Ward Two Garden Exhibition (the first of many more). A year later, neighbouring wards 4 and 7 started their own Cottage Garden Societies.

A meeting was held in the Institute Rooms on Monday night, March 11, and it was decided to start work right away. Pamphlets are to be printed and distributed so that the inhabitants will know how to “carry on.”

Victoria Daily Times March 13 1918

On the evening of March 11 1918, Ward Four residents met at the Women’s Institute Hall, Marigold for the purpose of organizing a Cottage Garden Association. Councillor Henderson was elected president and Mrs. T. Hall was chosen secretary. Hyacinth Avenue resident Sergeant Lawrence spoke of this movement in England and of how gladly the people there took up the work of producing food. William Carey of the Ward Two Cottage Garden Association explained what was being done in the Cloverdale area.

“The Garden City Women’s Institute flower show, which is now an institution in that district, is to be greatly extended, and will become a Cottage Garden exhibit for Ward Four. In the spring a Cottage Garden competition will take place, for which the gardens will be inspected by a government official and suitable prizes awarded. In the fall a Cottage Garden exhibit will be held at which prizes will be given for different classes of produce grown in the ward, also for poultry, rabbits, etc.” (Victoria Daily Times March 13 1918)

Ward Seven residents formed a Cottage Garden society in Spring 1918. The start was slow, as this comment from their annual meeting shows: “Speaking of the formation of the society and its accomplishments, at the start it appeared to drag, but by the perseverance of a few of the most enthusiastic gardeners, meetings were held regularly and lectures produced more enthusiasm as time went on, and ultimately a very strong committee was formed to make the Association a success.” Soon the society could boast: “The membership of this live organization is rapidly growing and the keenest interest is being taken in the increased production movement.” (Victoria Daily Times April 26 1918)

How successful was the goal of Increased Production in Saanich? See these statistics — In 1918, the Provincial Department of Agriculture conducted a survey of agricultural food production on city and suburban lots. The Victoria Daily Times December 20 1918 happily reported “Saanich leads with 348.8 acres or 10.8 per cent of the total urban and suburban area cultivated in British Columbia.”

In the Increased Production campaign, Saanich took a leading part, ranking high among the municipalities in B.C.

Victoria Daily Times December 31 1918

Part Three – How does your garden grow?