Garden Crusader: Rick Brooks

2005 Garden Crusader Award

Rick Brooks has been working with youth, seniors and people with developmental disabilities for many years. He's always on the lookout for creative ways to help them feel more connected to their community and live healthier lives. A few years ago he found the key: gardening. "Growing a garden provides people with better nutrition, promotes a healthier lifestyle, and increases social contact across all kinds of barriers," says Rick.

Rick BrooksGarden Crusader Rick Brooks

Non-Gardening Beginnings
It wasn't like gardening was in Rick's bones. "I'm a terrible gardener," says Rick. "My wife's a Master Gardener and at home I stick with the hard labor of digging, weeding and mowing." But Rick loves nature and is fascinated by how people come together to celebrate her beauty. As a teenager, he traveled to Native American lands in the Southwest learning American Indian dance and culture, and about their connection to the land.

Since the early 1990s, Rick has worked as the Director of the Health Promotion Project at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His involvement with gardening "grew" out of his desire to help clients improve their physical and mental health. Now it's become his life's passion.

The Power of Gardening
Over the years, Rick has integrated gardening into an impressive range of social programs for youth and adults in the Madison area. These include co-founding the Madison Home Garden Project, which has, since 1998, built 125 raised beds for seniors and people with developmental disabilities. He also started the "Growing Gardens, Growing Minds" summer program for area teachers, which helps teachers integrate gardening into their curriculums and create "edible schoolyards".

Rick coordinated several conferences for health-care providers on the "Power of Plants" and "Changing the World One Garden At a Time" to demonstrate the benefits of gardening and ways to use gardens with their clients. He helped write and edit a free, online book on creating community childcare and school gardens called Got Dirt?. Rick also helped incorporate gardens into an alternative, apartment-like nursing home in the Madison area.

Rick's gardening-related activities started a buzz around Madison. Soon, other non-profits and government agencies were asking him about integrating gardens into their own projects. To help assist these organizations, Rick co-founded the Community Food and Garden Network. This group is a consortium of 45 organizations that are using gardening to increase community health and promote food security. Rick has brought together neighborhood groups, nonprofit special interest groups such as the Wisconsin Council of the Blind, senior groups such as RSVP, elementary schools, Americorp volunteers, and church groups. The network shares resources and co-sponsors a range of community-wide gardening programs.

Working Together in the Garden
Rick has found that if community gardening projects are to have a long-lasting impact, their success can't depend on an individual. "The long-term success of these gardens depends on the recipients being directly involved and having consistent support," says Rick. "People support that which they help create."

A good example of this partnership is the Madison Home Garden Project. To build the gardens, Rick recruited student interns from the University, partnered with local nonprofits and social service agencies, and enlisted the help of neighbors. He then set up a system for ongoing contact with the gardeners. Positive results weren't always immediate. "At the Waunakee Adult Family Home there were two women who would aways sit in the backyard on nice days, but they rarely talked or interacted with anyone," says Rick. "The neighbors helped us build and plant a raised-bed garden. I never thought these women even cared about the garden until one day I received a present from them," he says. It was a jar of tomato jam they had made and a picture of them smiling in the garden. "That was the best gift I could have received," he says.

Gardening Abroad
Rick has not confined his gardening enthusiasm to Wisconsin. In Sri Lanka, he has established the Wisconsin-Sri Lanka Gardening Partnership with the Sarvodaya Women's Movement and Saliyapura Organic Demonstration Farm. These grass-roots community development programs have helped thousands of villagers in Sri Lanka work together to become more self-sufficient. One of Rick's contributions has been to start school gardens. Not only do the vegetables grown at school help feed the kids and their families, they've also become a means to a better future. "The kids raise vegetables, sell the extras, and we start bank accounts for them so they can save money for higher education," says Rick.

No matter where the gardening is taking place, Rick always finds there's a common thread. "Gardening is a way to relate to the Earth and bring people together," he says. "There's a spiritual aspect to gardening that goes beyond politics, culture, and religion. It allows people to talk about what's most important in life, such as food, children, and home," says Rick.

What's Next
By ensuring that community members are well-connected to their gardens, Rick can move on to thinking about new projects. "I encourage all kinds of crazy ideas," he says. "One idea I've been advocating lately, is to cut off the roof of a school bus, install glass and create a mobile greenhouse and garden lab where kids can learn about gardening,"

Whatever future projects Rick pursues, they will surely be focused on helping people cultivate community to lead fuller lives. Rick knows the power of gardening to make that happen. "My motto", says Rick, "is plant, grow and share what you know."

Last updated: 11/14/2022