It's amazing to see that one green space in the middle of the city can do so much good for the people that tend to it. The benefits of a community garden are endless. Whether they are used to grow flowers, plants or produce, this type of garden is a great place to interact with neighbors and friends. It also serves as an opportunity to educate gardeners of all ages and often encourages a sustainable food system. Best of all, a community garden can thrive in a variety of unexpected places like vacant lots, rooftops, schoolyards and even street medians.
According to Fred Conrad, community garden coordinator at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the impact of a garden is tenfold. "People who garden tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than people who don't because they have more exposure to better food," he says. He also points out that community gardening has proven especially beneficial for seniors. "Gardening is low impact, but involves bending, stretching, light lifting and getting outside in the sun," he says. "Gardens exist in the future, which means you're always thinking about what you will harvest next."
Working in a garden is a great activity for children as well. "It's not competitive so there are no winners and losers, no teams, nobody is left out, and it's a rare opportunity to all do well together," Conrad says. "They (children) also become familiar with nature, develop an interest in it and become environmental stewards later."
Gardening can also serve as relaxation therapy. There are a variety of mental and emotional benefits that one can reap such as reduced stress and the satisfaction of cooking with food you've helped nurture. Other benefits can include weight loss, a sense of accomplishment and an escape from the rigors of everyday life – there is something for everyone.
"Community gardening brings people together from all walks of life," says Bobby Wilson, president of the American Community Garden Association. "People start to work together to help solve problems in their communities. Vacant lots become productive pieces of land and people start feeling good about their neighborhoods."
The Local Food Movement
Community gardening has played a huge part in expanding the local food movement as well. "People now have access to fresh local food, and it helps everybody learn new recipes," Conrad says. "When you harvest a lot of a given item, you learn what is seasonal and can try other things you might not otherwise try in the supermarket."
To help make more locally harvested food available to the masses, programs like Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi's "Giving Through Growing" are supporting food banks across America.
Thanks to a collaboration with this program and the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi has pledged $55,000 to create five "giving gardens" designed to increase seasonal produce donations to food banks in five cities.
In Atlanta, this pledge has gone toward expanding the Metro Atlanta Urban Community Garden, where residents are taught to grow their own fresh vegetables on small plots of land. The space has gone from 21 gardening plots to 53.
Kate Chura, executive director of the Southeastern Horticultural Society, knows all about starting a community garden after spearheading the launch of Chastain Urban Farm last year. In partnership with Cibo e Beve restaurant and the Chastain Park Conservancy, Chura has created what she calls an "outdoor classroom" where residents can grow organic produce while learning from gardening experts. "We want to engage park goers, volunteers and the community in every aspect of the development and programming of this venture," she says. "Since October of 2012, we have hosted site preparation volunteer workshops, and soon will be adding healthy organic compost to the soil as well as a water catchment system."
Before becoming a part of an already established community garden, you may want to get to know the community first. Neal McSpadden, who belonged to a community garden for a year says he definitely enjoyed it in the beginning. "It was great because I got to work outside, grow healthy and delicious food and meet like-minded people," he says. McSpadden decided to leave because of disagreements among the other gardeners about everything from boarders to pets. "The number one thing a new gardener needs to know is whether or not he gets along with the other gardeners," he says. "You should also find out all their rules and make sure you agree with them."
Once you find a green space you feel comfortable with, you can begin reaping the benefits. Community gardens are more than just a way to leave your mark on your neighborhood; they also have a way of turning neighbors
into friends and bringing people closer together in the spirit of healthy, sustainable living. "It's about getting people engaged and excited about digging in the dirt, learning about plants, growing and sharing fresh organic produce and eating healthy food," Chura says.
Here are a few tips from Fred Conrad to begin your own garden project:
- Pull together a small planning community. It needs to be a group effort from the very beginning.
- Do the legwork. Organize meetings, settle on a site and put together an initial set of by-laws that make it possible for everyone to share one garden without conflict. For example, establish whether it's okay to bring your dog to the garden, let friends pick from your plot, etc. Have a mechanism in place for giving a person's plot to the next person on the waiting list if their plot looks bad or if they move.
- Engage people who are social and like making phone calls. This will help recruit the needed volunteers.
- Find a prime location. There are many senior centers that make spaces available. Faith-based properties like churches and synagogues are great, and they tend to have access to water, buildings and parking lots. Homeowners associations often have to negotiate a site, which can be challenging. But oftentimes parks are a great site, and sometimes they provide water for you.
Bobby Wilson, American Community Garden Association — www.communitygarden.org
Fred Conrad, Atlanta Community Food Bank — www.acfb.org
Robert Mondavi, Giving Through Growing — www.garden.robertmondavi.com
Park Pride — www.parkpride.org
Kate Chura, Southeastern Horticultural Society — www.sehort.org
Where's the Dirt?
The metro area is now home to over 350 community gardens. Be sure to check out some of these local organizations, or visit www.parkpride.org for a full list of community gardens in Atlanta.
The Learning Gardens and Farms Program — www.sehort.org
Mattie Freeland Community Garden — www.englishavenuegarden.org
Atwood Community Gardens and Urban Farm — www.nextstepsyep.org or www.handsonatlanta.org
Anderson Park Community Garden — www.atlantapal.com
Collier Heights Park Community Garden — www.collierpark.us
The Atlanta Community Food Bank's Community Garden Project —www.acfb.org