After 75 years, the Austin Organic Gardeners club keeps going and growing.
The club is celebrating this anniversary by creating side-by-side areas at Zilker Botanical Garden that show examples of a victory garden in 1945, the year the club started, alongside a 2020 garden updated with current organic techniques, says club member Madelynn Arnold.
Members had been starting to plan for this momentous year, but after COVID-19 hit, a new suggestion emerged.
Because of renewed interest in victory gardens, the idea came up for a "dual-sided garden, divided right down the middle, so (there’s a) 1945 style on one side and 2020 on the other side. And that’s when we began doing research for the victory garden," Arnold says.
This modest display – roughly 17 feet by 23 feet – is part of Zilker’s vegetable gardens, which the club has been tending for many decades, says Arnold, who coordinates the club’s activities there.
The design for the 1945 side is based on guidelines from "A Victory Garden for a Family of Five" issued in that era by the Illinois State Council of Defense, Arnold says.
At that time, "there were real plans that you were to follow, straight agricultural rows, major crops planted every three feet. ... and in between the mounded rows, in the furrows, were root crops, herbs ... (so) plants were at every 18 inches."
The history of victory gardens dates back to World War I when Americans were asked to grow food wherever they could. Victory gardens had a resurgence during World War II. During that war, an estimated 20 million of these gardens were grown thanks to a big marketing push, including many colorful posters.
Even though the 1945 side is modeled after that time period, club members are avoiding some gardening methods used back then. "We’re not going to be doing all the chemicals in it, but we wanted to have it be a historical representation," Arnold says.
The 2020 side, called a resilience garden to acknowledge a renewed interest in gardening during the pandemic crisis, has examples of techniques that can be used for organic gardening such as a square-foot garden, companion planting, ollas (buried water-filled clay containers) for underground irrigation and more.
Bridging the two sides of the garden is an arched section of cattle panel, with compost bins in the middle. Interpretive signage is designated for both sides of the newly installed garden, too, she says.
In addition, seeds for Japanese varieties of vegetables, such as the Japanese giant red mustard greens, have been planted in acknowledgment of the effect World War II had on people of Japanese descent, such as Isamu Taniguchi. He built the Taniguchi Japanese Garden at Zilker Botanical Garden as a gift to the city in 1969. "During World War II, (Taniguchi) was incarcerated with his family for three-plus years in Crystal City (internment camp)," says Angel Schatz, vice president of the club.
Gardens of the World War II era played a part in the club’s beginnings. The use of chemical fertilizers and other products was being promoted back then, and such practices helped push Charles Huntley and some of his co-workers to organize the group, says his daughter Joan Huntley, 80, a longtime club member.
They would have lunch together and commiserate about the increased use of chemicals for gardening, Joan Huntley says. At the same time, some people wanted to learn more about organic gardening, especially in Central Texas’ difficult growing conditions. They wondered, "How can we do without the chemicals that they are telling us will make our plants grow like crazy?" Huntley says.
They also realized they had more buying power as a group to purchase products. "There were no organic gardening stores," Joan Huntley says. "They would bring these things in literally by the trainload. The railroad would push the car off on a siding. … They would all congregate and offload their portion."
Currently, Austin Organic Gardeners has 144 members, with 30 new members since the start of the pandemic, Schatz says. The numbers have seen a spike "because of the increase in interest around food security," she says.
The active club has monthly events (online nowadays), as well as regular volunteer workdays at the Zilker vegetable gardens, which are also used as teaching gardens. The group is the oldest organic garden club in the U.S., according to the club’s website at austinorganicgardeners.org.
Since its start, "our members have shared information about successfully raising vegetables and ornamentals without using harsh fertilizers and toxic pesticides that harm the soil and disturb the ecological balance," the site says.
"That’s really the foundation of AOG. We are all about the soil," Arnold says. "We feed the soil, and the plants know what to do. We just garden in harmony with nature."
Club members also are working on other projects during this anniversary year, such as a "75 Years of Resilience: Fall Garden Series" with short videos of garden lessons, Arnold says.
Overall, the garden project has been satisfying. "Everyone was very dedicated to it," Arnold says. "It just kind of naturally evolved with our 75th anniversary and the momentum around victory gardens, with so many people wanting to return to this grounding activity of gardening."