Feature Article - March 2012
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Gathering a Community

Planning Community Gardens and More

By Kelli Anderson

Mary, Mary, quite contrary may have used silver bells and cockle shells to grow her garden program a few hundred years ago, but these days it takes a little more know-how to ensure that a community garden program, with all its potential programming offshoots, will be successful. Luckily, with gardening associations, passionate green thumbs and experienced park districts around the country to lend a hand, planting new community garden programs has never been easier.

And it couldn't come at a better time. Combine a limping economy, attention to healthy eating by the First Lady, studies touting the physical and mental benefits of all-things-nature, a local foods movement and an obesity epidemic clamoring for a solution, and it's no wonder community gardening programs are growing by leaps and bounds across the country.

"I've definitely noticed over the last two years that the movement is exploding," said Lisa Poser, extension associate with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and CYFAR Community Garden Project Coordinator in Greensboro, N.C. "With people's interest in healthy eating and concerns about one-third of people in our country being overweight, gardening is a great form of exercise and it can save you money by growing your own food. And a final thing driving people toward gardening is that it's very interactive and proven to connect kids with nature and to get them moving."

Poser, who was hired through a Department of Agriculture grant for the state of North Carolina (federal grants being a great financial resource for many community gardens, especially in low-income communities), is currently working on several community garden projects and knows of what she speaks. Whether it is to support a grass-roots interest in an urban university community, or to help improve the social and physical aspects of a struggling rural one, she is one of many around the country seeing the benefits of community gardening and all the creative programming opportunities that grow along with it.

While community gardening is nothing new, having begun in the 1890s, ebbing and flowing with the highs and lows of the economic times, many today are seeing a change that suggests that this movement is here to stay. The steady climb in community gardens since 2000 is certainly one indicator that the movement is strong.

"I think this trend is different," said Kirk Bunke, farm manager at the Primrose Farm with the St. Charles Park District in St. Charles, Ill. "It's more of a health and recreation concern for our residents, and not just about sustenance but about it being a quality-of-life activity."

From federal grants, seminars and conferences that now offer how-tos for park districts ready to break ground with gardens of their own, to uber-creative organizations like Garden Mosaics, an intergenerational educational urban program being used by 4-H and summer camps, gardening is being recognized for benefits and applications far beyond the simple need to grow a crop of fresh fruits and vegetables. They are shown to reduce crime, to increase property values, to improve environmental diversity, to attract much-needed pollinators, to create stronger community in a time of growing isolation, and even to create lifetime park district supporters.

Even more impressive, community gardens are a catalyst for many other community activities and programs such as classes for gardening, cooking, canning, living history, teen business management, various school programs, farmers markets and even hosting special events like weddings.

"We thought early about how we would use community gardens in our planning, and our LEED certified nature center, Hickory Knolls, has two north-facing rooms that look out onto the garden. They are great for events because they are used for classrooms and also rented for parties," said Pam Otto, the nature programs manager for the St. Charles Park District. "Whoever uses them, comments on the beautiful gardens where people tend to grow not just fruit and vegetables but bright annual flowers."