Community Gardens Do More Than Grow Vegetables

Everyone wants to save the planet. But imagine if you could save the planet while also fostering a sense of community, providing opportunities for intergenerational and cross-cultural connection, stimulating social interaction, improving people’s quality of life, promoting health, encouraging self-reliance, reducing family food expenses, beautifying neighborhoods, creating income opportunities, and helping the poor. (Whew!) That’s just what community gardens can do.

Found in cities across the United States, community gardens are open spaces where groups of people come together to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs at little or no cost beyond seeds and sweat. While every community garden is unique, many use a technique called square-foot gardening, where enclosed 4′ by 8′ beds are divided into 1′ by 1′ plots. These plots are small but mighty. According to the Healthy Lifestyles Marshfield Area Coalition in Wisconsin, “Square-foot gardening requires 80 percent less space than traditional gardening but may yield five times as much produce as traditional gardens.”

The Marshfield coalition opened its first garden site in 2009 on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church (FPC), whose new Green Team was looking for ways to make the church—and the larger community—more sustainable. The coalition now operates gardens at three different sites, offering a total of 80 beds (four of which are elevated for use by gardeners with physical challenges).

In a 2013 interview with Presbyterians Today magazine, FPC Green Team member Barb Gillespie described the group’s vision. “We have this planet that was provided for us; it’s our obligation to take care of it,” she said. “It’s kind of our ministry to model for others how we’ve been asked to share our skills and take care of creation on behalf of God.”

The garden at First Presbyterian includes 36 beds on previously unused space on the church property. Besides building the beds, the church installed two 250-gallon rain barrels—donated by a company that had previously stored sand in them—and a supplemental 50-gallon barrel. Underground pipes connect the barrels to the garden site. From year to year, Gillespie said, the primary expense is adding fresh compost and occasionally new soil. A $15 donation per plot is suggested to cover operating costs.

While the Marshfield gardens attract people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, the most important users may be children. In recent years, fourth-graders at two different schools have adopted plots at two Marshfield gardens, while participants in the YMCA’s Healthy Kids summer camp work at the third. As the coalition recently reported, “Children who would normally not experience gardening had a chance to see where their food comes from, not just a grocery store. Weeding and watering a garden encouraged physical activity and taught the kids responsibility and the power of working together. When the fruits and vegetables were ready to be harvested, the children were involved in washing and preparing fresh veggies to eat as a snack. This encouraged children to eat and enjoy foods they would have normally not chosen.”

According to one study, such involvement can have a measurable impact on kids’ health. In 2013, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that 17 percent of obese or overweight children in schools with gardening programs improved their body mass index scores. (The specific program studied included a weekly gardening session, a seven-week cooking and nutrition workshop, and social events for parents and children.)

Community gardens can have one more important benefit: raising the profile of the groups that host them. FPC also runs a food pantry and clothes closet, and Barb Gillespie noted an overlap with the gardening effort. “Lots of the folks that visit that facility have now started gardening with us,” she said. “So they’re getting exposure to our church community, and our church community is getting exposure to them and finding ways to create bridges between folks.”

Note: While community gardens are easy to run, they can be challenging to set up. The Healthy Lifestyles Marshfield Area Coalition has developed a 40-page guide called “Growing Together Community Garden Toolkit,” which may be downloaded for free from https://www.marshfieldclinic.org/Documents/garden-toolkit-2014-01-31-small.pdf. Another good resource is the American Community Gardening Association (https://communitygarden.org/); established in 1979, ACGA represents 2,100 gardens across North America.