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How One Inspired Gardener Helped Strengthen a Community

Joseph de Leon wasn’t always a gardener, but ever since he was a small child, he has understood the power gardening has to make a place feel special. “My earliest memories are of my grandmother’s awesome garden: she had roses, chickens, nopales, yerba buena. We were in the middle of the urbanized west side of San Antonio, but her yard was like an oasis.”

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Joseph is a passionate gardener in his own right. His initial try at gardening--a 2x2-foot herb garden--has gradually enveloped his whole yard, so that he now lives among vegetables, fruit trees, and chickens. He became involved with the Gardens at Gus Garcia, a combination community garden and senior garden at the Gus Garcia Recreation Center, through volunteer work, and when garden leaders invited him to be a member of the steering council, it was a natural fit. “It was an honor,” he says. “I dove in headfirst.”

Joseph can now speak to the magic that happens when you add community to gardening. “Having a space to build a connection with neighbors is something that’s been missing in my life, and I think for a lot of other people, as well,” Joseph reflects. “When I was a kid, we knew everyone on our street, and even streets away. Now it’s not that way.” Rediscovering that sense of fellowship and belonging at the Gardens at Gus Garcia has been powerful. “It’s more than chit-chat. It’s building things together, collaborating, asking for help, and solving problems.”

It’s a lot of work, actually, and as an energetic “doer,” Joseph has had to learn to draw boundaries to keep balance in his life: “one of the many lessons I’ve learned in the garden.” But Joseph says there’s something truly different about the work that happens at community gardens. It’s worth it because it’s work done together. “When you rely on people, and they rely in turn on you, you accomplish something bigger. It’s hard to compete with that feeling.”

There are plenty of collaborative accomplishments to celebrate at the Gardens at Gus Garcia these days: new fruit trees planted through a workshop with TreeFolks, a thriving pollinator garden, a smoothly-running compost system managed with help from Compost Coalition, a neatly-organized tool shed, a partnership with Multicultural Refugee Coalition, and a plan to host a fall SFC Intro to Food Gardening class series, among others. After a difficult initial two years with frustratingly low involvement and slow progress, these accomplishments over the past few months are nothing to make light of. Asked what makes him proudest about the garden, Joseph doesn’t hesitate: “For the first time, all our plots are rented to gardeners!” Having reached this long-awaited threshold, Joseph and his fellow steering committee members are savoring the moment, taking stock--and gearing up to tackle new goals, which include building an even stronger garden team.

Want to get involved? Help GGG gardeners keep up the pollinator garden, keyhole garden, and common spaces at regular workdays. Also, join GGG for community workshops hosted at the garden. Visit the GGG Facebook page to get in touch: https://www.facebook.com/Gardens.at.GusGarcia/?fref=ts

Want to learn about how to start and sustain a community garden in your neighborhood? Sign up for SFC’s Community Garden Leadership Training on May 17th &18th.