To save a community, start with a garden

As children, we’re taught the four basic necessities to life are food, water, air, and shelter. While only one of these is free, there is truly only one we can have a direct and immediate impact on, and that one is food. Water collecting is prohibited in many states, and the cost of housing is increasing at an alarming rate. Control over food though, is a much easier dilemma to control. Starting a community garden could be the most simple impactful activity society could do to change the world. From one simple garden could come some of the most transformational phenomenon needed to bring people together. Food is an essential part of any community.

Preindustrial revolution and even during WWI, when food was scarce, communities were encouraged to start community gardens, or as they were called then, Victory Gardens. These gardens did and still do, summon a sense of accomplishment, pride, and patriotism for many who contribute to the success of these gardens. A community garden has the power to bring people together, change the community landscape, and help people live a healthier lifestyle, while saving money at the same time.

While community gardens are city approved, with much of the funding coming from their budget, one of the most pressing concerns to starting a community garden is vandalism. There is some small occurrences of vandalism with gardens without or with low fences. While this is a valid concern, it proves to be short lived one. In addition, none of the programs in rural areas fenced their gardens; furthermore, none of these rural programs reported difficulties with vandalism of the gardens (with the exception of limited vandalism by youths). In urban areas, 67% of programs fenced their gardens. However, approx. one half of the urban programs reported problems with vandalism, with no differences in the report of vandalism between programs that did and did not fence their gardens. Once the community has seen the time, effort, and benefits of these life giving entities, it draws more and more members of the community to actively participate. One garden located near a community health center reported that they recruited adolescents seen at the clinic and connected them with a mentor in the garden.

A community garden will draw all walks of life regardless of age, sex, and race to ensure the success of the garden. As more and more members contribute their time to the success of the garden, people start to talk. Slowly at first, but once that relationship starts to grow, people let barriers down, and start to open up more. And then after awhile they start opening up and they can talk to you about their problems and what’s going on in their life. “It’s really cathartic for them because they can start trusting you, that they can talk to you.” When people feel safe, as they do in a community garden setting, they are more likely to talk about issues which they feel could help the community grow. A number of gardeners mentioned feeling safe and comfortable inside the garden, even when it was located across from a park known for its drug sales, or within an area that experiences frequent vandalism or theft. Many people have no idea where to bring up issues about the community, feel comfortable going in front of a board if they do, or just don’t like to be around other people, but feel a sense of security in the garden

Sharing of recipes, stories of loved ones, and a grievance about a city policy are not untypical conversations which arise in these gardens. As the season draws to an end and all the crops have been reaped, it is not uncommon for the gardeners to host a “Harvest Party.” People gathering and cooking with abundance the food provided by the garden, highlighting the recipes people mentioned throughout the gardening season. As the bond grows between neighbors, they start to share recipes, family traditions, and support during times of trouble. Some of these gardeners even donate some of their excess produce to local food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters.

It is activities like these which lead to the assumption this will lower property values. There are many people who believe the property value will decrease if the garden is kept in an unsightly area. This however has also been discredited. Additional neighborhood beautification, tree planting, and crime-watch efforts were common activities stemming from the community gardens. However, not all communities observed these kinds of additional benefits as a result of having a community garden. As the neighbors get to know one another, empathy takes hold, and people feel more inclined to help other neighbors, who aren’t too well off, out. Mowing an over grown lawn, weeding a flower bed, or just the simple act of helping someone bring their groceries inside have been reported.

Some neighbors even make it a point to get together every so often and patrol the streets for garbage. “The other thing we do during our work day, although it’s only once a month, we patrol the outside and pick up all the trash and garbage, which we didn’t create, but nonetheless we clean it up and at least for a day it looks good.” Tree planting programs, community watch programs, and even a community babysitting program had been developed. These beautification programs along with the neighbors keeping the neighborhood clean have helped to keep or raise property values.

While eating healthy fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the easiest ways to take control of one’s diet, most people don’t realize gardening is considered a mild to moderate form of exercise. So not only is the food they work for making them healthier, the work they put in to it is, as well. Gardening has been ranked a moderate to heavy intensity physical activity and in one study a significant change in total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and systolic blood pressure was associated with either walking or gardening.

The list of health benefits is virtually endless when it comes to eating fresh fruits and vegetables; lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, lower risk for heart disease, improved immune functions, etc…

With the drought happening in California presently, much of the nation’s food supply is in danger. This will undoubtedly increase the price in the stores. A 2007 survey shows a family who starts a garden can save roughly $2,000.00 per person on their grocery bills. For a family of four, that’s $8,000.00 yearly savings. One project estimated savings of between $50 and $250 per season in food costs for community gardeners. Not only does the family save on groceries, but eating a healthy diet allows families to save money on their medical bills too. They spend more time worrying about what is being put into their food, which allows them to be more aware of what is going into their bodies. For some, this bodily experience, and this form of bodily nourishment, is embedded within a growing awareness of broader environmental sustainability debates revolving around the issues of organic, seasonal gardening, carbon footprints, and food miles.

To have such a few arguments today, for something once encouraged, seems to prompt a backwards way of thinking. To discourage something started to show the love one had for their country, seems to create confusion to hinder the process of people working together to ensure the survival of the place these people call home. Whether it’s something as small as who puts the tools away, which roads should get fixed, or how to increase graduation rates, a community garden is a safe shard place. Your health is your most important investment, not only does a community garden help offset the cost of groceries, but it also keeps you in good health with fresh nutritious vegetables. Lowering grocery bills, getting exercising, and raising awareness of broader ideas seems to have the same effect on the community as it does to the gardeners themselves. Many wonderful things arise when people come together to honor the gift of life bestowed upon us by Mother Earth. Getting to know someone, while enjoying a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a budget, in a non-threatening way to help raise community awareness of community issues are just a sampling.

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Raise My Beds

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I have been contemplating making raised beds for my garden for some time now.

You can use wood, rocks, or concrete blocks to construct your beds. Last year, I tore down a garage on an extra lot I own. I have over 270 cinder blocks piled up. I will be using these.

Typically a bed is 3 to 4 feet wide in any shape or length. The height ranges from 6 to 24 inches. The only truly important thing is the width. You want it wide enough to be able to reach into the middle and not put too much strain on your back.

Since I will be using cinder blocks, my beds will be either 8″ or 16″ tall. I am not sure yet if I will have one or two layers. It really depends on how big I make the garden. Traditionally, I have a 20’x40′ garden.

It may take me some time to get the beds and the walk ways built, but the benefits of having the raised beds is very enticing.

1) Time and Labor

After the initial set up of the beds and walk ways, most of the labor intensive work would be complete. There would be no more tilling up the whole garden to get it prepped for the growing season. I could take a hoe, pitchfork, or my favorite tool, The Claw and flip the dirt by hand.

2) Weed Control

This can be done in many different ways. Before planting, a weed barrier can be laid down and holes cut in where the plants will go. Also, if the plants are placed properly, when they reach maturity, they will form a canopy to inhibit weed growth. Finally, with the beds at a more reasonable height, weeding is much easier.

3) Pest Control

Rabbits, gophers, and moles are just a few of the critters who enjoy a garden as much as we do. Its a free farmers market for them. For the borers, if you lay chicken wire down during construction of the bed, an effective barrier is laid and they cannot come up. For the rabbits, a mini fence combined with the height of the beds, should keep them out.

4) Soil

Amending the soil can take years to accomplish. With a raised bed, this can be done with a few bags of peat, manure, and gardening soil. Water drainage and retention is easier to manage. The best benefit, the soil does not get trampled down by feet, keeping it loose for roots to take hold and grow.

5) Higher Yields

With loose, better soil, the plants produce more vegetables. Need I say more.

6) Earlier and Longer Growing Season

Since the beds are above the ground, they have a tendency to warm up faster than the regular lawn. This allows the plants to go in earlier. With a little ingenuity, a temporary green house can be made for the colder months in the beginning and the end of the year.

7) Beautification

A raised bed can add beauty to your lawn with its neat manicured look. The clean rows and boxed look of the beds can make a drab corner of your yard more appealing.

The higher yields are the main reason I wish to put in raised beds. I love to eat. I love to eat fresh vegetables. The first time I grew potatoes and baked them, I knew, I would never buy potatoes in the store again. Never in my life had I eaten such a flavorful potato. And don’t get me started on the cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchinis, radishes, lettuce, and ….. Who am I kidding, this list could go on and on.

There is no comparison to freshly grown vegetables. Don’t even try it. Plant a garden and you will find out what I mean.