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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ip

Gardens in wartime

Often where there is war, there are gardens. Gardens of all shapes and sizes, on football pitches and rooftops, in school grounds and on windowsills. Some created by individuals, some bringing whole communities together.

When I was researching The Last Garden, I found many examples of gardens created in wartime, all over the world and throughout history. These gardens capture our hearts and imaginations because it seems almost impossible to create life amidst such chaos and destruction.

Here are a few photos I found in my research:

Historical war gardens

[Photo credits: Imperial War Museum. Royal Horticultural Society / RHS Lindley Collections]

Across Europe in World War I, there were examples of trenches with flower gardens. “They represented home and hope…they were both good for food and good to look at.” [1] Here, a soldier is planting celery in a communications trench in France.

In 1917 in Ruhleben Internment Camp, Germany, internees set up a gardening club. They wrote to the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society to request membership and seeds, apologising that they were unable to send payment. Carefully planning out their vegetable garden, they held competitions and grew vegetables to supplement food rations within the camp.

In World War II, in Hong Kong (where I live), war internees converted football pitches and school grounds into allotments. In Stanley Prison Camp, internees created a rooftop garden, using leaf litter for soil, planting shallots and mint to supplement their food rations. By the end of 1943, they were growing many types of vegetables with seeds collected from their food rations[2]. There were similar gardens in camps across Asia, including Changi in Singapore.

Photo credit: Imperial War Museum
Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

More than one million tons of vegetables were grown in Victory Gardens in the US during World War II, providing more than 40% of all the vegetables grown in the US.[3.]

The UK also planted gardens to support the war effort, with posters across the UK encouraging everyone to "Dig for Victory". Here, a bomb crater in the grounds of Westminster cathedral was converted into a kitchen garden.

 Photo credit: Amer Almohibany
Photo credit: Amer Almohibany

Modern-day conflicts

We also see gardens in modern-day conflicts. I saw this article after I’d written The Last Garden and I contacted the photojournalist, Amer Almohibany. He told me how this street in Eastern Ghouta in Syria was destroyed and this man, Mohamed Ataya, lost his home and some of his family members in the bombings. With no food available, and no land to plant a garden, he grew seeds on the rooftop of his home.

Gardens in refugee camps

The Lemon Tree Trust supports refugees through the provision of seeds and plants, garden competitions and education centres. One hundred years on from providing seeds to WWI prisoners of war, the RHS worked with the Lemon Tree Trust to supply seeds to Syrian refugees living in Domiz camp in Northern Iraq.

Gardens for peace-building

I also found many community gardens planted and cared for as part of peace-building initiatives. This example is from a garden in Juba in South Sudan, funded by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the peace garden project serves as an emblem to promote and defend human rights.

Gardens as memorials

There are thousands of gardens planted around the world to remember loved ones. This photo shows one man’s monument to friends lost in World War I – an entire cathedral of trees! Whipsnade Tree Cathedral:

Whipsnade Tree Cathedral
Photo credit: Whipsnade, Mat Schencks & Tim Herrick

In times of war and conflict, gardens can provide food security, where access to food may be limited. They can provide refuge and solace; hope and optimism; a glimpse of nature's beauty.

The Last Garden, beautifully illustrated by Anneli Bray, commemorates war gardens and gardens for peace-building around the world.

[1] Kenneth I. Helphand, 2006, Defiant Gardens: Making gardens in wartime, p22

[2] Kenneth I. Helphand, 2006, Defiant Gardens: Making gardens in wartime, p137



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