Give A Garden...To Grow a Community

By Barbara Richardson

He-roes work together to build raised beds for the Garden of Eat'n.

The National Gardening Association's Give A Garden campaign is the main theme of National Garden Month 2005. As we begin to promote the idea, people are asking, "How can I give a garden?' One option is to volunteer for a project in your area such as the Garden of Eat'n, and contribute to local food security and community spirit. Here's their story.

In John Day, Oregon, the Garden of Eat'n started out as a mentoring project for a dozen kids and has blossomed into a living, growing expression of community. Families First, a social service agency, started the mentoring group - the Her-os and He-ros Club - for 12 children who were at risk for hunger. Early in 2004, the agency's moved into a new building with a neighboring vacant plot, so director Linda Harrington obtained a grant for the club to start a garden there.

The Her-os and He-ros Club drew up a garden plan, then formed smaller groups to do research and make decisions. They learned about various crops, irrigation systems, soil preparation, and composting. Cooperative extension service staff and green-thumbed citizens conducted workshops for the group on these topics and others. Out of this process, the club developed a presentation to let the public know about their plans for the Garden of Eat'n.

While the club members and their mentors started seedlings, their public relations efforts were garnering interest. "Over time, the whole community got involved," says Elaine Mezzo, Mentoring Coordinator for Families First. When planting time came, the club received plant donations from a local business and from the local high school's Living Skills class. Community members donated tools, hoses, time, and their skills.

Their late-April workday brought out three-dozen people, including residents from nearby subsidized housing, to construct raised beds. They also received help from an unexpected quarter: people assigned to community service by the corrections department. They've been a boon to the project. "They've helped us with a lot of the heavy work, and erected deer fence around the entire garden area. They've brought different skills to the project, and can fix things," says Elaine.

To facilitate summer maintenance, the club keeps a notebook of needed tasks in the garden. That way, people can stop by anytime and find out what needs to be done. When volunteers are hard to come by, community service workers fill the gap. Elaine exclaims, "They actually ask to be assigned to our project!"

Surplus produce is donated to the food bank, and residents of subsidized housing are invited to harvest fresh vegetables for their families. "At our local fair, we'll be selling a small amount of produce and promoting our garden. And some of the club members and their mentors will be entering produce in the fair."

What's down the road for the Garden of Eat'n? Elaine explains. "Next year, we'll celebrate National Garden Month by planning another phase in our garden and inviting the community to join us. We're considering dividing up some of the raised beds to provide community garden spaces. This will be a new approach to our garden and add another dimension. And we definitely want to expand the club to bring in more kids."

The Garden of Eat'n might also start a farm stand to sell surplus produce. If it happens, there's talk of asking other backyard gardeners of John Day to join in to form a farmer's market. This would establish the Garden of Eat'n as a nucleus of neighborhood activity.

In just one growing season, the Her-os and He-roes Club have managed to cultivate community, as well as vegetables, among their raised beds.

Inspired to share the joys and benefits of gardening? Check with your cooperative extension service Master Gardeners, schools, social service agencies, or garden clubs to find a project that could use your help. Or, support grant programs for youth and community gardens across the country through a donation to NGA. However you Give A Garden, we at NGA thank you!

Photograph used courtesy of Families First

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