Top eleven reasons to love community gardens

This article was originally published on May 14, 2015

...and to support community gardening in Austin

A community garden is a piece of land, either public or private, that is collaboratively managed by a group of people who use it to grow food for themselves or others. Most community gardens divide the space into individual “plots” managed by garden members, though many instead garden the entire area collectively and share or donate the harvest.

In Austin, there are currently 53 community gardens on public (city, county, and state) as well as private (congregation, school, private residential) land. The largest and oldest garden, Sunshine Community Garden, is four acres with 150 individual plots, serving more than 200 gardeners. Tour a few community gardens and you’ll find that each one has a distinct organizational structure and personality. Every garden brings enormous benefits to its participants.

What’s to love about community gardens?

1. They are places to learn.

Participating at, or even visiting, a community garden provides the opportunity to learn from experienced gardeners. Walk through a community garden with someone who gardens there, and you’ll likely end up full of questions for him or her (“What’s that vegetable?” “What’s that bug?” “How did you build that trellis for your cucumbers?”). Many community gardens include informational signage for visitors, and some host gardening classes or instructional tours, as well.

2. They are places to befriend your neighbors.

We live in an era in which, for many of us, our neighbors are strangers. Community gardens draw members who live nearby, so they provide the opportunity to meet, work beside, and even form friendships with people who might live down the street, but who you might never have encountered otherwise. Many an unlikely friendship has formed at a community garden, often across generational and cultural divides.

3. They have incredible, alive soil.

To grow food in a successful and ecologically-friendly way, it is essential to have good soil, which means soil rich in organic matter and buzzing with microbial life. At community gardens, years of organic gardening (all community gardens in Austin are organic-only), build amazing soil. When you garden at an established community garden, you stand on the shoulders of all the gardeners who held your plot--and built your soil--before you.

4. They are great places for ambitious projects.

Community gardens can serve as a setting to try out projects that require teamwork or that take up a significant amount of space. Examples include pavilions with rainwater collection systems, like the one at New Day Community Garden; pollinator-attracting gardens, like the one at Festival Beach Community Garden; or artistic fences, like the one at North Austin Community Garden. The implementation of these projects serves as a learning opportunity for anyone who lends a helping hand.

5. They are sites for restoring and building health.

A growing body of scholarly literature points to the health benefits of gardening and spending time in nature. Studies have shown therapeutic benefits for people recovering from psychological ailments such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; mental and emotional benefits for aging seniors; and improved attention in children with Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, there is a horticultural therapy field dedicated to using gardening as a tool for healing. Gardening is also considered mild to moderate exercise.

6. They are places for children (and adults!) to explore nature in the middle of urban areas.

Spend 5 minutes at a community garden, and you’ll find birds, lizards, and plants and insects at all stages of life--a vibrant ecosystem in action. Gardening has been shown to provide a plethora of benefits in children, including improved attitudes toward healthy food, improved understanding of life science concepts, and improved interpersonal skills. Growing evidence attests to our species’ deep rooted need to connect with nature (Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle is an informative and engaging read about this need for nature). Community gardens are also valuable to wildlife, creating habitat corridors throughout our city.

7. They are places to practice teamwork.

Working effectively as a team on an ongoing basis, particularly in a context where participation is voluntary, can be enormously challenging--and rewarding. Personal growth and invaluable skills are gained along the way.

8. They empower us to organize and advocate for ourselves and for our communities.

The skills we gain practicing teamwork--how to hold constructive meetings, how to work with people who have a variety of learning styles and personalities, how to resolve conflict peacefully, how to advocate for a particular outcome--are the same skills needed for broader community advocacy. Community gardens teach us through our successes that we can make our community a better place.

9. They create the opportunity to identify community assets and build networks.

Successful community gardens are built and sustained through contributions of time, talent, and resources from the communities where they are located. Before these assets become available to the garden, its members first must find them. This is done by building relationships with individuals, associations, and businesses in the neighborhood. Tour a community garden, and you’ll hear stories about this process--you might hear about a picnic table built by an Eagle Scout and with his carpenter father, a fence designed and built by a group of university students, or a tool shed donated and constructed by a local branch of a hardware store where one of the gardeners is employed.

10. They provide space to carry on our food cultures.

Food is a powerful element of tradition. Community gardens provide the opportunity to grow, eat, share, and celebrate one’s traditional foods--even far away from one’s homeland, or when one has been disconnected from his or her heritage. This ability to produce and consume one’s traditional foods, known as food sovereignty, is empowering and is important to our quality of life.

11. They provide space to grow low-cost, fresh fruits and vegetables for people without space to garden at home.

Particularly for residents living in areas with limited access to sources of healthy food, this can make a significant difference in their quality of life. Additionally, as Austin continues to urbanize, a higher percentage of people across income levels will live in apartments, making the access community gardens provide to gardening space all the more vital.

Are you inspired to participate with a community garden? Click here to find a community garden near you!