Sunday, June 7, 2009
One Idea in Detail: Grow Vegetables in a Community Garden
Over the last few years, I've watched a community garden develop in a corner of the playing field of Midvale Elementary School a few blocks from my house. Initially, some plots were tilled up for use by the school kids as part of learning projects as well as for use by local residents. Last fall a communal orchard was added with 70 fruiting trees and bushes. It continues to develop each year and the progress has been quite remarkable. A local retiree built a wonderful tool shed this spring and an artist/welder created a set of beautiful and imaginative metal gates.
Gardening has traditionally been viewed as a fine activity for seniors - it gets us outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight, provides physical activity without being terribly taxing, boosts our spirits (except when the slugs and aphids strike), and furnishes a variety of low-cost, nutritious fruits and vegetables for our dinner tables. On the downside, it tends to be a solitary activity - and many seniors live in apartments or condos where land for gardening is not available.
Enter the community garden. Community gardens can take several forms, but many provide garden plots - from 8X10 feet to 20X20 or larger - for a small rental. For example, some in my home town of Madison charge $10 to $65 annually per plot based on the gardener's income. There may also be a requirement to donate a few hours of labor during the growing season if you are able.
Low-cost space, however, is just the beginning of the benefits. Plots may be tilled up for the gardener in spring, water and hoses provided on site, free compost delivered, and seeds and plants available at no or little cost. Many gardens also have tools and expert advice for sharing and garden sites accessible by those using wheelchairs. In a lot of ways, a nearby community garden plot is even better than having a garden in your own backyard.
Community gardening also provides an opportunity to interact with new friends. You will recall that one criteron for a great HarvilleQuarter is engagement with people you would not otherwise have met. While it would be possible to stay on your own 400 square feet without visiting with your neighboring gardeners, it's unlikely. Eventually, you are going to want to share suggestions and experiences and even produce ("I'll trade you some zucchini for an acorn squash.")
Madison's largest garden, Troy Community Gardens, has over 300 20 by 20 plots in an area of the city with a sizable H'mong population. At least half of the names on the plot assignments are clearly H'mong, who tend to group themselves together. However, at the margins, one can find some interesting juxtapositions - Diane Schmidt is next to Lee Thao and the Thomas family adjoins the Chavezes, who are across the walking path from Lamngern Paborriboon, who is next to the Williamses. These folks will probably start with the occasional "hi, neighbor" wave but by the end of the season will have progressed to more substantive interactions, even if their common vocabulary is limited.
So, if you have a green thumb, or even if you firmly believe you don't, check out the community garden scene in your town. If there is no community garden, consider dedicating a HarvilleQuarter to starting the first one in your area.
There are resources available on the Web like the one sponsored by the American Community Garden Association (ACGA). Gardens don't have to be large; in fact, some are created out of a vacant lot or the corner of a small park. As pointed out by the ACGA, a single community garden can bring many benefits to a neighborhood, including reduced crime, more interaction among neighbors and a more attractive community.
This could point you to one of my other HarvilleQuarters - spearheading the restoration of a habitat, vacant lot, or city park. That will be the subject of another "One Idea in Detail" posting.
By the way, the photograph is from my local community garden. You can find others on its Website, www.midvaleproject.net.