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Community Gardens Grow More Than Food

These small patches of Eden allow urbanites to connect with nature — and their neighbors

By Nina Rubin | August 27, 2012
Oakhurst Community Garden Entrance
There's a beautiful friendly, funky, hippie vibe at Decatur GA's Community Garden
Courtesy of Nina Rubin

When the seed and garden catalogs arrive, with their tempting photos of heirloom tomatoes, purple Peruvian fingerlings and copper watering cans, a gardener’s pulse quickens, and dreams of organic perfection take flight.

But even if you kill every plant that crosses your path or don’t have outdoor space, your thrills don’t have to be vicarious. If you live near a community garden — and whether you live in a major city or an outlying area, chances are you do — you can pick up a shovel and learn to grow your own food.

Seeds of a Movement

The first community garden sprouted in Detroit in the 1890s. Although there were similar projects in the decades to come, it wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s, when many American cities fell into decay, that a veritable movement took root. With the goal of revitalizing cities and expanding green spaces, rebuilding social connections and offsetting inflated food costs, city agencies started to permit neighborhood groups to lease blighted parcels for a token $1 a year. 

These early gardens were temporary, but as time went on progressive cities legislated for the right to permanently set aside vacant lots — sometimes under the guise of “squatters’ rights.” Out of sheer sweat equity and green enthusiasm, community gardens emerged as hopeful signs of urban renewal. 

Fast forward to today’s farm-to-table, locavore and organic movements (and high cost of food), and it’s no wonder community gardening is one of the hottest trends in the country. With memberships averaging $30 a year and plots going for about $50 a season, community gardens are accessible, affordable miracles. Most provide tools to share, and water and compost are usually provided for free. Best of all, they offer amateurs and aficionados alike a supportive, social place to create their own tiny Eden. 

The 'Community' Part of Gardening

Brenda Moon, 63, a regional labor organizer for the AFL-CIO, fell into community gardening in 1999 as an antidote to her stressful life. Driving back to her home in Southfield, Mich., one day, she spotted the Southfield Senior Community Garden and had an intuitive flash that it could be a place of healing for her and her family. She wasted no time signing up for a plot at the ethnically diverse garden, where African-Americans, Latvians, Armenians and Germans of all ages have created a gorgeous patchwork of well-tended plots. 

Originally settled by Irish, English and German immigrants, Southfield is a model of American diversity, and the garden reflects it. The Russians grow beets. The Germans protect their seedlings from the cold with cut-off bottoms of two-liter plastic bottles — a 21st-century adaptation of the European “cloche,” or glass dome.

Moon recruited her younger sister, Nedra, now 58, and their mother, then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to join her. Although the two initially protested, Moon was insistent and eventually won them over. “I really believed gardening would be therapy for all three of us,” she says.

And it has been. The garden has restorative powers. Today the sisters tend a 900-square-foot plot, growing tiny lemon tomatoes and experimenting with potatoes, broccoli and three or four plantings of lettuce a season — “every kind but iceberg,” Moon says.

The garden’s wide pathways are wheelbarrow-friendly, and the raised beds make weeding easier. While the work is great physical exercise for the sisters, they find the “soul” benefits are even greater. Nedra Moon has joined the garden’s board of directors and has become one of its unofficial mayors. Potluck dinners showcasing ethnic dishes made with vegetables from the garden knit them closer to the community. 

Even though their mother now requires full-time care, the garden still pulls her out into fresh air. “Mom absolutely lights up there,” Brenda Moon says. “She sits on a swing with an awning we put up, and she watches us weed and water until well after dark.”

Re-Establishing Roots

Another Southfield member, Michael Gray, 47, remembers watching his grandfather grow collards, pole beans and tomatoes in suburban Detroit, and he’s thrilled to have found a place to replant his Southern roots. He even has a name for the plot of 3-by-3-foot raised beds he built by hand after being laid off from his auto-industry IT job in December 2010: Serenity. “This is where I de-stress and find peace," he says. "Or to borrow a phrase from the business world, it’s my form of risk management.” 

Inspired by Southfield’s Eastern European and Asian gardeners, Gray has picked up some organic farming techniques and now plants marigolds (whose roots produce a chemical that's a natural bug repellent) to protect his green beans, collards, squash, mustard greens, okra, kale and potatoes. And he speaks passionately about the importance of attracting bees to the garden. “They’re the secret weapon of biodiversity,” he says.

Today, Gray is just a few credit hours away from earning his certificate as a master gardener at Michigan State. His intense horticulture training was free, and in return, he’ll pay back local university and extension agents through community garden volunteerism. 

Regrowing a Neighborhood

Outside Atlanta, in Decatur, sprawls the 2.75-acre Oakhurst Community Garden. It's one of the most influential community gardens in the South because of its partnerships with schools, farmers markets and food banks, and its strong ties to the local slow food movement. Like many popular urban community gardens, OCG has an 18-month wait list for its 34 garden plots. Still, even if you can't get your hands dirty in your own space, there's something for everyone here, from gardening classes to social events.

The garden was launched in 1997 as an environmental educational organization by a group of Decatur activists who wanted to create a vibrant green space on a plot of land in a mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood undergoing gentrification. For those founders, leasing individual garden plots was hardly the master plan. Instead, the hope was that by reclaiming a neglected green space, OCG would model and inspire a community of environmental stewards. The garden could be a healing place in a hotbed of conflict. Community engagement through environmental education was the big idea.

The garden is set on two sites in a wooded neighborhood of Craftsman-style bungalows. All day long people come to tend to their plots and soak up the friendly, funky scene. 

Year-round classes, like Your First Edible Garden, Composting Workshop, and Drought and Rain Gardens, generate revenue and bring hobbyists together. The garden can be rented for weddings and children’s birthday parties; its annual plant sale rakes in a fifth of its budget; and it hosts popular social events, including Martinis in the Garden and Chicks in the City (in reference to the city’s backyard-chicken movement). 

"Boomers bring the gift of time to the garden,” says Stephanie Van Parys, Oakhurst's executive director. “They bring experience, they are less burdened by children, and they are ready to engage." 

Every member is expected to give 16 hours of service to the garden each season, whether or not they have a plot. "In season, I'm there weekly," say recent retiree Lance Netland. "The garden staff has educated me, and I've met people and shared wisdom there. Gardening tells the story of where you're from and what you are, and I love those stories,” he says, adding, “the work is hard, but you'll never be lonely at the garden."

For information on community gardens around the nation, visit the American Community Garden Association

Freelance writer Nina Rubin gardens, cooks, cans and organically battles tomato hornworms in Atlanta. @ninarubinATL.s

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