Ming Nagasawa didn't really think of herself as a gardener until about four years ago. She lives in an apartment in Dorchester, Mass., in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood, and has only a small yard in which to garden. She started out by growing a few perennials and quickly became hooked. "At the same time I started gardening, I was doing community volunteer work with the Urban Ecology Institute," she says. They were planting trees in the neighborhood. A few of the volunteers started talking about other ways to green up their neighborhood. "I saw a vacant lot across the street from my apartment and thought, why not start a community garden there," says Ming.
The rapid transformation of this trash-strewn, abandoned city lot into a thriving community garden has been amazing. Ming started her work in the spring of 2005. She got permission to create the gardens from the lot owner, a Community Development Corporation named Nuestra Communidad. Then she organized volunteers and neighborhood teenagers to help clean up the weeds, garbage, broken glass, and construction debris in the lot. Once the debris was cleared, Ming helped find grant money from the Urban Ecology Institute and the City of Boston Beautification Fund to purchase compost, plants and other materials. "We built raised beds because the soil was so poor," says Ming. "We now have 14, 5x10-foot raised beds that residents use to grow organic vegetables, herbs and flowers," she says. The new community garden also boasts perennial gardens, blueberry bushes, a raspberry patch, a grassy area for kids to play, a picnic and barbecue grill area for gatherings, a water suply, lighting and even a garden shed for storing tools.
"The first year we had some problems with vandalism," says Ming. "Some of the roses we planted were stolen." But since then, the neighborhood has embraced the garden and vandalism is not much of a problem. "The more kids and families are involved in the garden, the more they see it as their garden and they watch over it," she says.
In order to make the garden truly part of the neighborhood, Ming got the kids and teens involved too. Working with a local community center, she helped start an after-school program for young children. She also developed a work-internship program for teens that gives them a small stipend for maintaining the gardens, while also adding personal touches on the wall murals that surround the garden. "It was good to get these urban teens excited about working and interested in the garden," says Ming. They started to take pride in the garden. "They began to understand that if you leave one piece of broken glass on the ground, then it gives permission for others to leave more broken glass and eventually more problems. But if you take a step towards making the garden better, then everyone will work to make it become better," says Ming.
The gardens have also been used by two senior housing developments in the neighborhood: the Grandfamilies House, the nation's first housing community for grandparents raising grandchildren, and Boston's Hope, an intergenerational housing community for elders and foster families with children in therapeutic care. Grandparents and their grandchildren are encouraged to work together in the garden, and some specially-adapted raised beds have been built so seniors who are disabled can still be active in the garden.
The Generation of Good Hope Community Garden has become a melting pot where members of the community from around the world can meet. "We have families of West Indian, Latin American, African-American and Asian descent all gardening together," says Ming. The garden is a great place to exchange ideas, cultures and food. "We have cookouts where people can bring different dishes to try, and to talk about gardening and life in their homelands," says Ming. In the exchange of food and recipes, there's an exchange of cultures and understanding that makes people more tolerant of the differences they may have. "A neighbor gave me some collard greens they'd grown", says Ming. "I'd never eaten them before, but now I love them," she says.
What started just a few years ago with some flowers in front of her apartment, has turned into a community-wide gardening project. "I'm amazed that this garden took shape so quickly," says Ming. What's even more amazing is that Ming spearheaded these efforts while raising two young children, going back to school for her master's degree in social work and helping her husband through a health crisis. But she says that's what happens when everyone works together toward a common goal. "You may not get everything you want in a group process like this, but overall it's better to involve more folks. It's the best way to get the job done," she says.
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