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Community Gardening

by Susan York Drake, Outdoor Recreation Planner
Bureau of Outdoor Recreation
Ann Arbor, Michigan

(Editors note: The following article was a presentation made at the 1976 Great Lakes Parks Training Institute.)

Community gardening is one of the fastest growing leisure-time activities in the country. In 1974, one in ten, or approximately 7.3 million, households reported that they maintained a vegetable garden away from home. It appears that we are rapidly approaching the point where 12 million households are participating in recreational community gardening. This is comparable to the level of participation in the victory garden program of World War II.

Why the interest—is it a higher unemployment rate? the inflationary trend? Perhaps, but I doubt it. In traveling to the various communities it seems that all income levels are fairly represented in programs. Economics does not seem to be a major factor in the community garden program.

The intangible benefits in the aggregate are more important than either the utility of the produce or the cost savings. Those involved in community gardens meet hundreds of new people with similar interests. And these people are often from diverse backgrounds.

An intangible reward which I have called "showing off" is something that is very prevalent in most of our successful recreation activity programs. Many of us know what it feels like to be the winning athlete—that rush of adrenalin they spoke about in the Olympics. Creativity is something that everyone strives for; and people look for recognition of their creativity. It is a good feeling. Community gardening is fun, hard work, worthwhile, and creative.

The American public is looking for low-cost, close-to-home, creative leisure activities. Perhaps we are in some inner revolt against our plastic cities—plastic packages. Natural and nature are key words in every advertising campaign. Pollution, environmental concerns, world food problems—we hear these day in and day out.

The bottom line of all this concern for many people is to return to those activities in our leisure time which were once elemental to survival. Gardening is work if you have to do it; recreation if you do it by choice. I would say likewise for many, many of our craft activities: quilt making, woodworking, weaving, and other forms of leisure-time activities. We are finding more and more interest in this type of programming.

Community gardens are being developed on such types of property as park lands, schools, businesses, highway rights-of-way, Federal lands, cemeteries, privately owned lots, and urban renewal lots. The sponsors represent diverse agencies: park departments, cooperative extension agencies, community action agencies, citizens groups, city beautiful councils, human resources departments, senior citizens groups, public housing authorities, and private industry. Park and recreation people in many communities across the country are taking the leadership position of providing recreational community gardening.

There are three types of community gardening programs currently in existence. One is the city lot project whereby cities assess all vacant city lots for potential use and publish in local newspapers the location of those deemed suitable for gardening. Residents then select a lot from the list and secure it by formal registration. Some cities ask that residents locate the vacant lot. The city then checks the ownership, and if it is city owned or the private owners will lease it to the city, it may be used for gardening. There is a wide range in the level of support services for these types of gardeners. At one extreme the city programs simply provide for use of the land, while some cities provide plowing, fertilizer, compost material, seed, plant materials, water, and minimal fencing. Most provide some type of gardening information, generally in the form of written material which is distributed to all enrollees. Courses in gardening, canning, and freezing are often offered in cooperation with the cooperative extension service or the local gas and electric companies.

Some cities require that more than one family use the property, and often a group of 15 or more people will garden on a single city lot. Many people fence their gardens at their own expense despite having no assurance of long-term use of the land. Large quantities of rubble and debris and lack of topsoil are major problems on many urban renewal lots. As an indication of the success of this type of program, however, an end-of-the-

Illinois Parks and Recreation 4 May/June, 1976

season survey revealed that 94 percent of the participants in Detroit's farm-a-lot program wish to participate again next year.

The second type of community gardening program is that of having youth gardens. Some recreation departments, schools, garden centers, 4-H groups, or garden clubs sponsor these gardens. Children find this to be an exciting, rewarding experience. Sponsors of youth gardens generally supply all the necessary materials and tools. Groups meet on a regularly scheduled basis from one to three times a week, and the children work with their activity leaders on specific projects. Another method is that used by Lansing, Michigan, where just as the story lady comes to the playground, so does the garden lady. The gardens are located on land immediately adjacent to a major neighborhood park. Many groups tie the gardening program into environmental education, nutrition, and other aspects of the learning experience.

Youth projects vary in duration and emphasis. They also vary in the freedom allowed to the children. When a creative leader is working with a group of children, the children essentially develop their own adventure playground within their gardens.

It isn't necessary to have straight row gardening. You can do like the Indians do and put in a variety of plants all in the same little plot of land, and just be kind of surprised by what comes up. In general, children who once participate in these programs tend to come back year after year, and they become more sophisticated as they advance in age. This is also a good project for different aged children to be working together.

The third type of community gardening program is that which will interest the majority of you. This is where a community garden program is based on the major site concept. A community will have one or more major sites where from 75 to 150 families all garden together on the same site. Major sites usually provide plots of approximately 25 x 30 feet for each family or group that participates. Many of these community gardeners have communal corn patches in which all families share in the cultivation and the harvest. Under a new concept, additional small plots are allocated on a permanent basis for the planting of perennial flowers and vegetables.

Major sites generally provide tools on a loan-out basis, some maintenance, educational information, garden classes, and, if at all possible, water. Water is one of the key ingredients to having a successful community garden program. Major sites generally have bulletin boards to facilitate communication, picnic areas, porta-Johns, tool storage areas, compost piles, and trash barrels. Communities which have surveyed gardeners find that after basic garden needs are met the most desired additions are picnic areas, shaded rest areas, play areas for children and adults, and loanout recreation equipment such as volleyballs, croquet, and horseshoes.

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Illinois Parks and Recreation 5 May/June, 1976


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Prime activity time at a community garden site is in the cool of the day, either early morning or evenings. Evenings and weekends are the most popular times for gardening at community garden sites. It appears to be typical that a family will meet right after work two or three times a week at the community garden. They work in the garden and have a picnic supper. Even if picnic facilities are not available, you will find gardeners eating in their car or wherever they can. In one city, gardeners appropriated tables from a nearby attractive but underutilized park. I'm happy to report that the park and recreation people ignored the transfer.

Many community garden sponsors provide staff to coordinate each garden site. A good ratio appears to be one staff person working half time for every 100 families. When you consider that in some communities the average number of people working per plot is six, you can see that a half-time staff person serves 600 people.

Education is the key factor in the success of families participating in community garden programs. Like volleyball and football, recreational gardening is more fun when you understand the game well enough to play with a little finesse and know-how to keep the score. Like any other game, gardeners often begin to play, learning the rules and the finesse as they go along.

To be totally effective education-wise, it is important to have key staff knowledgeable about gardening practices at the site on a regular basis. These key staff people often plant demonstration gardens, hold lectures on the site, and are available to answer immediate questions and to show actually what things need to be done. In some communities 50 percent of the gardeners participating for the first year in community gardens have never gardened before.

Creative leadership and an openness to new concepts in recreation have resulted in the creation of community gardens which are becoming true focal points for neighborhood recreation fully utilized and enjoyed by all ages. This could be a trend toward outdoor community centers.

What are the benefits to a park and recreation department of establishing recreational community programs? Environmental education, the greening of land laid waste by local and Federal urban renewal programs, the developing sense of community in neighborhoods with community garden sites, participation rates by persons with large amounts of enforced leisure time, dietary improvement, and creative self-sufficiency are only a few benefits.

Establishing a community garden as an interim use of some of your park land is relatively low cost. This is not a major facility; it is the type of facility that is needed in a changing neighborhood. Park and recreation departments often purchase land in new areas when funds are not yet available for development. Community gardens are once again ideal interim use of park land.

The second benefit of community gardening is that your audience or your clientele covers the entire age spectrum. This is not a program limited to children between the ages of 10 and 18 or young adults 20 to 30. This program has a high degree of involvement of young children all the way up to senior citizens. This helps to broaden the base of your recreation service provision.

As people involved in recreation, we are all aware of the crisis in our neighborhood parks. Nonuse of neighborhood parks is something we read about in all our current literature. Community garden participants are at the site a minimum of four hours per family per week, and this ratio climbs all the way up to 14 hours a week of participation. Now, what does participation mean? It means that we are utilizing our land very wisely; it means that we do not have empty park facilities; something else it means— a reduction in vandalism.

If the ideal community garden site has 100 families, you can anticipate that at least one and probably more families will be at that garden site almost from dawn until dark (with the exception of the very hottest period of the day). This has the potential for reducing vandalism in the parks. When you add on to this the fact that community gardeners by the sweat of their brow build equity in that property, they build a major interest. They have very strong feelings of territoriality. This becomes their park and they care! They care to the extent where volunteers will help to upgrade the facilities; where they will take on some of the responsibility of management of the park site; and where they are simply not going to allow vandalism to occur.

In established community gardens it is not unusual for the gardeners to take up donations for purchase of site amenities such as picnic tables, to want to get involved in more permanent landscaping plans, and to do such things as erect bird baths and martin houses to attract the wildlife.

The third benefit of community gardening is that it builds self and community pride. In this time of budget constraints and trying to build a constituency for parks and recreation, gardening is like motherhood and apple pie. People like this program; it is highly visible; a good community garden, if you supply the minimal maintenance and encourage the planting of flowers, is an attraction to the entire neighborhood. You'll find that people comment on it; that the newspapers like the publicity; it is a natural for showing off what a recreation department can do, as well as supplying a stated need of the people in your community. This can be an asset to your entire recreation program.

Many cities celebrate at the end of the season with a "harvest festival." Unique things can happen. It's not unusual to have canning demonstrations and bring in old plowing tools and farm implements to have a real true harvest picnic. And in some instances they sponsor hay-rides. In fact, your major cities get back to a small town concept and feeling on this particular day. These harvest festivals are a good opportunity to present some of your other programs in which you want more visibility and, in fact, do a good deal toward selling your local recreation department to do a diverse segment of society. You are going to find that you are going to have people in your parks who have never been in your parks before if you start community gardening.

Community gardening is only one of many activities in which the technical assistance division of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation is offering their services. We would like to work with you in recreation planning; in negotiating land donations or bargain sales, easements, leases, and zoning changes; or in fund raising from foundations, corporations, and bank trusts, as well as analyzing the availability of funds from other Federal programs.

Illinois Parks and Recreation 28 May/June, 1976

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