Mother Nature wants YOU
to Join a Community Garden

Plant, grow, SHARE

Peterson Garden Project a community garden in Chicago
Sign says I am deliriously happy in my garden

Community gardens are full of creative expression!

By LaManda Joy

WHAT'S the most important part of the phrase "community garden"? It would be easy to say "garden" — because that's the part you can see. The real answer to this trick question is "community" and that means YOU.

There are many reasons to join a community garden: learn a new skill, teach your kids where food comes from, save money, help the environment, have a reason to get outside regularly and share with others. These reasons — and many more — fuel the people who grow food at a community garden.

Although community gardens are a hot topic these days, they have historically been a place where neighbors work together to solve problems, such as food insecurity, lack of connection and neighborhood improvement. Our program in Chicago, Peterson Garden Project, was inspired by the World War II Victory Garden movement where more than 70 years ago, the city mobilized to teach hundreds of thousands of new gardeners how to grow their own food during a time of need. Our seven Pop-up Victory Gardens follow this legacy by teaching everyone basic, organic, food-gardening skills.

Old or new, the community gardens that last the longest focus on people and the give and take between individuals and the larger group. Here are a few ways you can help your community garden thrive:

Know what you're getting into.
Most community gardens are run by cities and/or nonprofit organizations that are often understaffed and/or underfunded. When you pay your membership fee, it's not like being at a health club where someone is paid to wash all the towels you use. Fees cover basic costs to run gardens and, sometimes, provide materials. On rare occasions, there is paid staff to oversee the gardens. But maintenance and work in the garden is often expected of the members. In other words, nobody is going to do it for you.

Watering cans

Keeping the watering area tidy. Kids and adults alike fight to use the ducky watering can.

Pitch in.
Some gardens have mandatory hours where participants must work to help keep the garden clean. Keeping track of this can be a chore so most gardens leave it up to participants to help of their own free will. Successful gardens need lots of work — and not just in spring. Expect to spend some additional hours, all season long, helping garden leaders with tasks to keep the garden maintained. And if you can't attend scheduled workdays, ask if there's a special task you could do on your own time.

Share.
Have extra seeds or some plants you can't use? Put them somewhere in the garden where others can find them. Have an old wheelbarrow or garden tools cluttering up your garage? Ask if they can benefit the garden. But please, do ask first! Power tools, extra lumber, soil amendments, extra garden hose …. If you have easy access to these types of things, they might be put to good use.

Gardeners with wheelbarrow

Introduce kids to the joy of gardening with a plot in a community garden.

Step up.
Time and talent are other things you can share. If you have leadership skills, step up to help (or become!) a garden leader. Organizing, financing and communicating with the garden community takes up a lot of behind-the-scenes time and, if you have some skills to offer in this area, they will be greatly appreciated. To make your leadership role successful, be clear about what you can offer and the time commitment you can make. And have a good understanding of expectations. If you are an experienced gardener, be sure to encourage and support new gardeners.

Don't have sticky fingers.
We've all been tempted by our neighbor's gorgeous tomatoes. Theft in the garden is a real downer. It happens, unfortunately, but don't give in to temptation. Set a good example and honor everyone's hard work.

If you don't volunteer, don't complain.
If you don't like something, do something about it. There's no point in being snarky about the trash around the perimeter of the garden (or whatever may be bothering you). Take a few extra minutes and pick up trash, pull some weeds in the common area, tidy up. If everyone does a little bit, issues are resolved quickly.

Fresh produce to be donated

Volunteers harvest food to donate to a local food pantry partner.

Prepare to be changed!
Peterson Garden Project is going on its seventh season and I'm constantly invigorated by the stories of our gardeners and how participation has made them a different person. Some of the gardeners gain a sense of control over their food supply. Others make deep connections with fellow gardeners or develop a relationship with nature — sometimes for the first time. Good things happen in gardens when people come together to nurture something beautiful.

And that's the point: The garden is a reflection of the energy everyone puts into it. Your small contributions add up to a greater garden experience for all.

LaManda Joy

LaManda Joy is founder of Peterson Garden Project, a gardening/home cooking education program in Chicago, IL. She is an Illinois Extension Master Gardener, blogger (theyarden.com) and speaker. She has written the book "Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook" (Timber Press) and has been a board member of the American Community Gardening Association. She believes that community gardens can save America — seriously.

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