Life Time: The Power of Community Gardens

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One evening last summer, I went to a neighbor’s house to deliver a bag of very ripe pears, which another neighbor had picked from her tree the day before. I had just finished dinner, which included sweet corn from another neighbor’s garden, as well as a salad made with vegetables from my house. I also benefited from fresh eggs from the same neighboring pear supplier, as well as peonies from a friend who grows over 200 varieties in her suburban yard.

I swelled with pride for this little co-op we had. I loved being the recipient, but felt just as good sharing the abundance of my own garden.

As an avid exerciser, I recognized the sensation, which sounded like an endorphin high. Among its many health benefits, gardening strengthens your body and improves your mood.

That’s motivation enough to get your hands dirty, but connecting with my neighbors seemed to magnify those rewards. It’s like how I feel after a group run: the training itself is good for me, but I get a little something extra when I’m joined by friends.

Come together

Although I didn’t think of my garden as a “community garden”, the fact that my neighbors and I were connected around the fruits of our labor made it that way.

“All community gardens share the gardening,” says Cathy Walker, president of the American Community Gardening Association. “They come together to provide food for their families, neighborhoods and others.”

The more traditional community garden usually refers to a plot subdivided into smaller plots where people can grow vegetables and flowers for personal use with permission from municipal authorities or landowners. This shared space unites neighbors around a common goal.

[A community garden] provides a place where people can come together to improve their quality of life.

Other examples include school gardens, which serve as educational tools, and healing gardens, which are often grown near healthcare facilities to provide therapeutic green spaces for patients, families and staff. There are even “guerrilla gardening” projects – where gardeners descend on a run-down public space to transform it into something vibrant and beautiful.

“Community gardening is more than planting a seed and watching it grow,” says Walker. Rather, it provides a place where people can come together to improve their quality of life. Community gardens, she says, make people grow.

Good mood in flowers

It is a concept with deep historical roots. “Most people don’t realize that community gardens were created in the 1800s in the United States,” Walker notes, adding that Americans have long used gardening as a unifying and problem-solving tool.

Perhaps the best known of these projects are the World War II Victory Gardens, planted to support the war effort by supplementing food rations. Many of them are still thriving.

And while community gardening offers myriad benefits – providing a local food source, reducing food insecurity, promoting nutrition education, encouraging physical activity, etc. – experts believe the reason for their enduring popularity is much simpler: it feels good.

“Gardening is good for the soul,” says Jim Guckert, founder and executive director of Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington, DC “It’s meditative and contemplative. Nothing motivates a person like getting your hands dirty.”

In the words of writer Anne Lamott, “air and light heal.” The very things that are good for gardens are also good for people. During the coronavirus pandemic, community gardening has provided a space to entertain both and still practice social distancing.

Feed the need

The gardens are also an integral part of racial justice protests and memorial sites. At George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, volunteers built a greenhouse and raised vegetable beds along the sidewalks. Flowers planted in the center of the intersection encircle a sculpture of a raised fist.

The garden honors the space as well as those afflicted by collective trauma. And healing extends to better nutrition for the community.

The garden honors the space as well as those afflicted by collective trauma.

The Chicago-based Urban Growers Collective, a women-led organization from BIPOC, operates eight urban farms on 11 acres of land mostly located on the south side of the city. They provide jobs for young people, better access to fresh food and business opportunities for farmers. These farms also support health, economic development and education efforts in communities of color.

“Urban Growers Collective’s COVID-19 emergency food response efforts include working with our BIPOC-led team of partner organizations to distribute boxes of produce and prepared meals to community members in need. said co-founder Laurell Sims. “Not only does our team meet the immediate needs of communities, but they directly support BIPOC companies by enabling them to safely grow, process, prepare and distribute high-quality, nutritious meals and produce boxes.”

Between January and August 2021, Urban Growers Collective’s Fresh Moves Mobile Market distributed free product vouchers worth a total of $100,460 to pandemic-affected community members, along with 3,635 boxes of products and some 4,000 hot meals.

“We know that healing cannot happen when basic needs are not met,” says Sims. “And our first line of defense to help promote healing is nutritious food in historically deprived communities.”

Seeds of change

People join community gardens for a variety of reasons, Walker says: to combat loneliness, to improve their health, to network and socialize, to learn gardening skills, or just because.

Guckert began guerrilla gardening 18 years ago, tending to a small, neglected park across the street from his home, which was next to the first United States Marine Corps post. Although he considers himself a “lone ranger,” Guckert has mobilized some 125 like-minded gardeners in the DC area. In 2020, volunteers logged over 1,500 hours of service. By 2021, they had racked up 1,400 by August.

“Capitol Hill is a generally upscale neighborhood with pockets of underserved populations,” he notes. “We focus on the green spaces that need the most beautification.”

“There is always a friend in the garden.”

Although these guerrilla gardeners do not seek permission to transform and maintain these spaces, public authorities praise their work and municipal agencies are now collaborating with them to sustain the results. “I feel rejuvenated in the spring when I see the bulbs I planted breaking through the ground — and sometimes the snow,” Guckert says.

Doing good leads to feeling good. And positive action in your community provides countless benefits beyond the confines of the garden.

Chief among them is human connection. “Community gardening gives you the opportunity to get to know your neighbors as equals,” says Walker. “Mother Nature doesn’t see skin color, language barriers, level of education or where we come from. There is always a friend in the garden.”

Growth Opportunities

Want to get involved in community gardening but don’t know where to start? These ideas can help you get started.

  1. Share the Bounty from your own garden – whether it’s a sprawling garden plot or a few pots on your balcony – with friends, neighbors or a local food shelf.
  2. Look for existing gardens that need volunteers. Some schools, hospitals and places of worship have vegetable gardens that require a helping hand.
  3. Check with your city to find out if it offers plots for rent in a locally sponsored community garden.
  4. Be on the lookout for abandoned plots that need embellishment. Consider adopting the Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington, DC’s credo: “We don’t ask, we act!” In 15 years of guerrilla gardening, founder Jim Guckert reports, they’ve never been asked to stop.
  5. Start your own community garden by following the steps outlined by the American Community Gardening Association at www.communitygarden.org/resources.

This article originally appeared as “Build Your Community” in the March 2022 issue of Life experience.

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