Tending 'Defiant Gardens' During Wartime

From the Western Front trenches of World War I to the deserts of Iraq, soldiers have found comfort in the simple act of gardening.

A British soldier poses proudly behind his garden. i

In December 1914, a British soldier in Belgium poses proudly behind his garden, festooned with stoneware rum jugs. Imperial War Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Imperial War Museum
A British soldier poses proudly behind his garden.

In this December 1914 photograph, a British soldier of the London Rifle Brigade poses proudly behind his garden, festooned with stoneware rum jugs (on the extreme right). In the months to come, this location at Ploegsteert Wood in the Ypres Salient in Belgium would become the scene of horrific fighting.

Imperial War Museum

Kenneth Helphand, writes about war gardens — not just victory gardens, grown in time of scarcity, but those planted on hostile fronts, including Eastern Europe's ghettos and the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II. Helphand calls the gardens an act of defiance.

A Ghetto Garden

As a teenager, Roman Kent tended a garden with his brother in the Lotz Ghetto southwest of Warsaw. The Holocaust survivor speaks with Ketzel Levine about the garden.

Book Excerpts

Selections from 'Defiant Gardens':

'Til the Boys Come Home'

John McCormack sings a tune that was popular during World War I.

French trenches flanked by gardens during World War I
From the author's collection

Kenneth Helphand's fascination with what he now calls "defiant gardens" began with this undated World War I photograph of soldiers in the French trenches flanked by their planting beds. Notice the use of twigs as ornamental borders delineating each soldier's plot. Helphand had this picture on his bookshelf for several years before deciding to pursue the meaning of gardens in such extreme circumstances, beyond their obvious use for food.

A soldier took the time to paint trees on canvas-like material covering the side of his hut.
Imperial War Museum

On Jan. 28, 1918, this soldier took the time to paint trees on canvas-like material covering the side of his hut, while stationed near Boesinghe, Belgium. "Gardens in the war," writes Kenneth Helphand, "...exemplified the struggle to create something normal in the most abnormal conditions."

Working in a plant nursery, Glubokoye Ghetto.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Polish ghettos created by the Nazis during World War II were "urban prisons," writes Helphand, "set up to deliver their residents, ultimately, to extermination." Those residents, Polish Jews, were walled or fenced in to restricted areas, as they were in the Glubokoye ghetto, pictured above. Here, residents are working in a plant nursery in what might have been a moment of respite, at least distraction. From this community of 6,000, about 60 are thought to have survived.

Clearing rubble in the Lodz ghetto
Ghetto Fighters Museum/Israel. Reprinted with permission of the Archive of Modern Conflict, London.

Gardens in the ghetto were literally carved out of dust and rubble, as shown here in this picture from the Lodz Ghetto. These were not ornamental gardens, but simply places to grow vegetables crucial to staying alive. In his "Sketches of Ghetto Life," chronicler Oskar Rosenfeld observed, "The hungry stomach is not fastidious; it wants to be filled... Even a few beet leaves can keep one alive for an hour or two." The Lodz Ghetto was home to Roman Kent when he was a teenager. (He is featured in our report.)

A scarecrow in the Lodz Ghetto hospital garden. i
Ghetto Fighters Museum/Israel. Reprinted with permission of the Archive of Modern Conflict, London.
A scarecrow in the Lodz Ghetto hospital garden.
Ghetto Fighters Museum/Israel. Reprinted with permission of the Archive of Modern Conflict, London.

A scarecrow, complete with a yellow star (left side), supervised the vegetable garden at 36 Lagiewnicka Street, the Lodz Ghetto hospital.

Mess hall garden at block 22 in Manzanar
Kenneth Helphand, 2001

Worlds away from the ghetto, in a landscape unimaginable to Polish Jews, another community was corralled involuntarily: Americans who were Japanese. This Stonehenge-like arrangement is actually the mess hall garden created at the Manzanar Internment Camp, from rocks and boulders dug out of the surrounding California desert.

Kids playing atop a man-made garden at Manzanar.
UCLA Special Collections

In this unlikely desert setting, children at Manzanar play atop a man-made garden, no doubt lured by its small waterfall and pond (visible lower right). Tons of earth and rock were moved, and native shrubs were transplanted. One document notes that this community, which included a high percentage of professional gardeners, "dug gnarled sagebrush to plant as shrubbery along their porches...brought home clumps of grass, mint plants, cattail, reeds and willows". Helphand calls the results, "great American gardens."

Kogita garden at the Minidoka Internment Camp.
National Archives

Though not a professional gardener, Yasusuke Kogita (far left) loved stone. During his four years at the Minidoka Internment Camp, located in southern Idaho, he'd walk miles and miles into the surrounding sagebrush to find intriguing rock. He then engaged the help of his two young sons in getting sometimes massive boulders back to the camp, where he created an elaborate garden.

The Kogita brothers
Ketzel Levine, NPR

Those two young sons, are Ted, left, and Paul Kogita. Their memories of Minidoka are dominated by the image of their father lost in reverie, working and meditating in his rock garden. They say it was a great source of his strength, and a way in which he could control his world. Unable to leave his rocks behind, Yasusuke Kogita brought them home with him when the camp was closed. Today, those rocks — some of them weighing two tons — grace Paul Kogita's Seattle garden.

U.S. Army Warrant Officer Brook Turner trims his grass with scissors in a camp north of Baghdad in July 2004. He missed the green of Hawaii, where he lives, and of his native Oregon. His wife sent him grass seed, but ants ate it. Undeterred, he acquired sod.

Sgts. Justin Wanzek and Carl Quam Jr. pose with their corn crop.
National Guard Magazine

Stationed outside Tikrit, Iraq, Army Sgts. Justin Wanzek (left) and Carl Quam Jr. (featured in our story) borrowed Iraqi irrigation and planting techniques and grew bumper crops of food: corn, cauliflower, cucumbers and peas. Their battalion ate particularly well, but that was only part of Quam's motivation. Gardening was a way to connect to his home in North Dakota: "It helped me cope with missing them."

Books Featured In This Story

Defiant Gardens

Making Gardens in Wartime

by Kenneth I. Helphand

Hardcover, 303 pages | purchase

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Defiant Gardens
Making Gardens in Wartime
Kenneth I. Helphand

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