Community Gardens and Why You Should Join One ASAP

We’ve always been told to eat our fruits and vegetables, but we haven’t always been told the best ways to get them. If you’ve ever driven through your town, seen a huge garden, and wondered who put it there, that was most likely your local community garden! Community gardens consist of land that has been set aside and divided into plots for volunteers and members to use for gardening. These plots are especially handy and essential for those who live in apartments, retirement homes, and other properties with little to no access to land suitable for gardening. Community gardens make it possible for them to plant their own fruits and vegetables in their own neighborhoods.

How Do Community Gardens Work?

Each community garden is different, so it’s best to contact your own local one for their specific rules before getting started. Some community gardens require a membership fee and provide you with gardening tools, while others only require that you reserve your plot for the season, but require you to bring your own gardening tools. Some may even have a host or lead gardener that will be available to assist you and hold workshops. Members can then plant produce of their choosing and return during operating hours to water and trim what they’ve grown. Not every community garden allows the public to enter and pick at free will because they have an arrangement for produce to be routinely donated to a local food bank. Some community gardens allow volunteers to mark their own plots as available or unavailable for public picking. Finally, at the end of the season, members dig up and dispose of their own plants so as not to cause rot in the soil. Some are used as compost!

Close up of homegrown organic cherry tomatoes growing in a vegetable greenhouse garden

Where Community Gardens Began

The United States’ first community gardens popped up in Detroit, Michigan in the late 1800s during the recession. Originally vacant lots, these gardens were created with the intention of providing low cost and accessible food for struggling families during the economic collapse. The idea soon spread across the nation to help the many citizens in the US that had been left unemployed, including many recent immigrants.

Benefits For You

Joining a community garden will require you to put in some work, but the rewards will be worth it! You can definitely look forward to showing off your green thumb to your friends and family. Community gardens allow you to decide where your food comes from and when you get it. You’ll have the opportunity and the encouragement to eat seasonal crops, which have been grown without the chemical processes required to speed up ripening out of season. You’ll also have an easy and more budget friendly way to eat healthier; Eating fresh produce is one of the best ways for your body to get the nutrients it needs. Some of the many nutrients you can get from growing and eating different fruits and veggies include fiber, iron, calcium, and Vitamins A and C. As a person with an iron deficiency, I can definitely say that the opportunity to have fresh produce available to you should not be taken for granted! Some of the most significant health benefits of a diet rich in fresh produce include lowered risk for heart disease, lowered risk for stroke, and lowered risk for high blood pressure.

the word vitamins spelled out in scrabble letters surrounded by leaves and lemons

Growing produce in a community garden will also give you a great opportunity to try some new and delicious meatless recipes to help reduce your carbon footprint. Resources for a vegetarian diet use less water, land, and fossil fuels than the resources required for a diet that includes meat, and even switching to a meatless diet for one day each week can have a positive impact on both the environment and your health! Check out this article for some amazing meatless monday recipes that you can try with your first harvest!

When you join a community garden, you’ll be able to feel the benefits right away. Studies have shown that doing volunteer work literally boosts your mood. “Self-esteem increased and symptoms of depression decreased from becoming an important part of the solution for a person in need. Feel-good hormones like serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine may be released when a person sees a direct positive result from their good deeds,” explains licensed psychotherapist Terri Cole. Volunteering with the organizers of a community garden or joining a community garden that helps bring food to the community even has the ability to benefit your mental health. We can surely all use a pick-me-up after the year we’ve had! Not to mention that joining a community garden is also a safe, outdoor hobby to pick up as we continue to navigate a pandemic.

Benefits for Your Community

senior man with watering can at farm greenhouse

It only makes sense for a community garden to not only be used by a community, but to serve it as well. The impacts that a fresh, affordable food source can have on a low income or highly populated community are incredible. One of the many ways that community gardens serve local people is by providing healthy food to those who need it. Many volunteers with community gardens arrange routine donations of fruits and vegetables to food banks and homeless shelters. Along with the health benefits that I listed in the previous section, a healthy, produce-rich diet is important for giving the human body energy throughout the day and for supporting the body’s immune system to fight off infections. Supporting the body’s immune system also reduces the risk of a person needing, and then subsequently becoming addicted to, prescription medicines. The food provided by community gardens to those in need replaces the fast food and processed sugars that would otherwise be eaten by underprivileged people, providing their bodies with far more nutrition. Community gardens that allow the public to pick freely also give lower income people an easy, free, and dignified opportunity to provide themselves and their families with healthy fruits and vegetables.

Community gardens also provide for the nature of your community. While we may not always be as happy to share the product of our gardening with critters, animals like rabbits, squirrels, and birds are an important part of our ecosystem. Providing them with food from community gardens keeps them from digging through trash and ingesting something fatal. Bees are another integral (and endangered) creature in our local ecosystems. Many plants rely on bees for pollination, and bees rely on pollen and nectar for survival. Produce plants, and even decorative flowers, benefit the bees in our community.

Capital Roots Community Gardens

Capital Roots is an organization located in the Capital Region of New York state. Along with organizing and operating 55 different community garden sites in New York, Capital Roots also works to reduce the impact of poor nutrition on public health in New York’s Capital Region by providing healthy food access and offering nutritional and horticultural education for all ages. Those 55 sites contain 15 acres of plots throughout four New York counties, which hold around 1,000 plots for their members. We interviewed Amy Klein, Capital Roots’ CEO, to learn more about the benefits that community gardens can offer communities.

CEO of capital roots amy klein, standing in front o a new community garden wearing a black medical mask and a white coat.

CEO Amy Klein by Michael DellaRocco

The COVID 19 pandemic has impacted our communities in a myriad of ways. When many businesses closed down and left people jobless, Capital Roots saw their memberships go up as they served as a retreat for people stuck inside. “People were really yearning for an outlet, a place to get out of their apartments to breathe some fresh air and connect with nature,’ Amy shared. “At their core, community gardens are about being able to grow your own fresh food and add nutritious food to the family table, but they really do so much more for communities and individuals. COVID really shone a light on the mental health benefits of a space for people to get outside in an urban area. It was really a haven for folks.”

Woman in a cap harvesting fresh green produce on a sunny day in New York

Squash Hunger Gleaning at Local Farm by Michael DellaRocco

In 2004, Capital Roots launched the Squash Hunger program, a food donation initiative that collects and distributes more than 40 tons of fresh produce to the Capital Region’s food pantries and shelters each year. The program was inspired by seeing how hard members were working to grow their own food and how much they appreciated it. Amy recalls, “This is hard to believe now, but at the time, food banks were not distributing fresh produce. It wasn’t considered necessary for people in need, so it just was not happening. But we knew that if people were willing to work this hard to grow fresh produce, that certainly people wanted it.” 

 

Squash Hunger was created to infuse that fresh produce into emergency feeding systems and has also given gardeners with excess produce a way to easily donate it. The program has grown exponentially every year since its launch. Capital Roots created a volunteer-based network to distribute that produce efficiently to food banks and shelters. Those volunteers also collect excess crops from farmers who have more in their fields than the market demands. The excess produce is hand picked by volunteers and distributed to those in need via the Squash Hunger Program.

Produce Project Leader, Matt and Student with Market Box of fresh green produce

Produce Project Leader, Matt and Student with Market Box by Michael DellaRocco

Along with fresh produce, Capital Roots also provides its community with important life skills. The Produce Project is a hands-on horticulture education, entrepreneurship, and job readiness training program for local students, hosted on Capital Roots’ 2.5 acre Urban Farm in Troy, NY. “The idea is to give teens from the local high school a platform to learn basic job skills and life skills through their work on the farm,” says Amy. “Students earn a stipend-a school credit and a food share that they take home to their families. They learn basic job skills like dealing with conflict, teamwork, resume writing, and interview skills. They also learn life skills like money management and opening bank accounts, along with cooking and growing nutritious food.” Many students involved in the Produce Project credit the program with helping them ace interviews, find jobs, and even earn leadership positions right at Capital Roots.

 

“I think that community building and the things that we can all do to improve our communities are so important today. When people protest their frustrations with how their communities are being run, part of what they’re really saying is ‘let’s invest in our community.’ Programs like Capital Roots-and so many others-we’re doing that. How we invest in our communities and the individuals who have chosen to make our city their home for decades-that’s what it’s all about.”

Benefits For Our Planet

digitally drawn image of people in colorful shirt harvesting vegetables on a cloudy day

Kelly, Jennifer. “Environment”. Accessed 2021

Community Gardens can play an especially important role in healing our planet. Decreasing the distance from farm/garden to your dinner table lowers greenhouse gas emissions that are caused by the fossil fuels being burned by our airplanes and trucks. The shorter distance your food has to travel to get to you, the less trucks and airplanes there are emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Between 10 and 30% of a household’s carbon footprint can be blamed on food as a whole, and 5% of that number is due to the transport of food. Meals in the United States travel an estimated 2400 kilometers, or 1490 miles, to get from farm to plate; That’s about halfway across the continental USA. More people growing food at a community garden within walking distance of their homes can lower the demand for transported food and therefore lower the amount of pollution emitted into the air by transportation vehicles. Along with lowering the amount of pollution going into the air, the plants in community gardens also release more oxygen into the air and absorb CO2.

 

Community gardens benefit the environment in more ways than one. Along with reducing air pollution, community gardens can also reduce pollution into our clean water. Rainfall, while completely natural and not a direct cause of pollution, often aids in the spread of chemicals and garbage through stormwater runoff. When a community garden is placed where there might otherwise be a parking lot or soon-to-be-obsolete brick and mortar department store, the rain is absorbed into the soil and helps feed the growth of the plants. If that rain were to fall on asphalt, it would not be absorbed, but rather flow away to the nearest body of water, carrying all kinds of litter, pesticides, bacteria, and car leak fluids with it. Even if we were to somehow eliminate the pollution being carried, stormwater runoff still causes an unnatural volume of water pouring into one area all at once, resulting in erosion, flooding, and destruction of animal habitats. Stormwater runoff is the number one cause of impaired streams in urban areas, and the only solution is to reduce impermeable, flat surfaces and increase our numbers of forests, grassy areas, and gardens.

Environmental water pollution. Polluted river - dirty green water, garbage, waste and trash. Harmful water, toxic biohazard. Sewage and wastewater

What You’ll Need To Get Started

Gardening might seem challenging, but with the right tools and information you’ll have flourishing fruits and vegetables to cook with in no time! Here are some things you might find useful when joining a community garden.

 

  • Gardening tools (if they aren’t provided for you)

Depending on the size of your plot, you may want to stick with smaller tools, or you may want to invest in a full size rake, hoe, and shovel. If you’re planning on gardening in a smaller plot, you may only need a gardening fork for loosening up your soil and a small trowel for digging holes to plant your initial crops in the ground. You’ll also want to make sure you have a watering can and eventually some gardening scissors or pruning shears for harvesting your fruits and veggies!

 

  • Gardening gloves

Thorns are no joke, and neither are blisters on your fingers from raking barehanded for too long! A good pair of gardening gloves are well worth it and will last for years! You can find many pairs on Amazon, including this pair.

 

  • Organic Seeds

While seeds purchased from your local grocery store or garden center will work, organic seeds are more sustainable because they are grown with only natural fertilizers and more attention paid to the health of the plants and seeds. You can find hundreds of organic seeds at this website!

 

  • Kneeling Pad

Especially for your initial planting day, you’ll feel way better (and get a lot less grass stains on your jeans) with your knees on soft padding rather than in the ground. You can purchase a large one here.

 

  • Organic fertilizer

It is important to feed and protect our plants without using harsh chemicals, so after checking with your community garden that bringing your own fertilizer is okay, a natural or organic fertilizer is recommended.

There are countless benefits of joining a community garden. These benefits extend not only to you, but also to your local community and especially to our planet. You’ll have the most success if you plant crops that thrive in your climate, so make sure you research which fruits and vegetables grow well where you live! Planting in the right season can have a major impact on your produce as well since many crops take months to reach full size, and the goal is to harvest when as ripe as possible. 

Now that you’ve read and learned how to get started, Open a new tab and look up where your nearest community garden is and get started! There are so many fruits, veggies, health benefits, and delicious meals waiting for you! Tell us which crop you’ll be planting first on our instagram, @cookandculture! 

 

You also have a limited time opportunity to download the stunning new Spring issue of our magazine for free to learn more facts about the benefits of eating seasonal crops!

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Olivia deGregory

Written by Sadie Zollinger