The sprawling suburbs are the bane of any good environmentalist’s existence. With wide expanses of lawns and roads, they represent American consumerism to a T. Is it possible to rebuild the fabric of a functional culture? Follow my challenge to create a suburban community garden and help to rebuild a sense of community.
Starting a Community Garden: Difficult? Depends on the Community
We were tired of living in a sprawling community without a commercial center or walkable, public gathering space, and thought a community garden might be a great way to meet like-minded folks as well as improve a sense of community.
However, we had no idea it would be such a hard concept to sell. A triple whammy of outdated government, bureaucracy, and institutions set us up for a hard road from the very beginning.
Community Woe #1: Just Say No to Logic
We had our eyes set on a flat, sunny spot near a public floral park, which included a greenhouse, gazebo, and ample parking. We thought a vegetable garden and floral garden would compliment each other and attract more visitors to the park. To our surprise, weary government workers who associated community gardens with impoverished neighborhoods denied the proposal.
Community Woe #2: Just Say No to the Latest Healthy Campus Trend
We then visited our community’s small university and inquired about space to have a garden. Lo and behold, a space was available and ours for the taking! I anxiously drove over to tour the site, but my heart sank as I saw that it was on a steep hillside, behind some trees with difficult access, completely hidden from view, and strewn with old tires and garbage. Behind-the-times institutional bureaucracy made it clear that this trend of edible gardens that was sweeping across American universities would not catch on here.
Community Woe #3: Just Say No to Tax Payer Rights
We decided to hold a forum at the library to gauge public interest in a hillside garden. Yet we were held back again when the library informed us that the library’s public gathering area could only be reserved by organizations, not residents. I don’t understand how a tax-funded public entity could deny citizens of the right to use the public meeting space; to discuss a community garden, no less. But, that seems to be the way with government entities.
The Role of Public Servants
What this all boils down to is governmental and institutional bureaucratic minutiae creating an unwillingness in public servants to reflect that which the citizens deem important.
But it was a good reminder for me that governments and institutions are rarely the source of change.
Somewhere along the line we, as citizens, got it in our heads that it is the government’s job to lead us rather than serve us. The alternative, which is what this community garden opportunity represents, is to identify where the community is lacking, and engage as citizens by rolling up our sleeves and participating.
To read more about our adventures in starting a community garden, see my article Growing Community Against Steep Odds.
Can a Community Garden Be a Cure-All for the Perils of Modern Culture?
A single community garden is not an end-all, be-all cure for a consumerist society, a car-based suburb, or for those who feel more isolated even during a time when we’re more connected through technology.
Indeed, there would be no action to improve society if a particular action were required to be a cure-all to be acted upon! But a single community garden is a start, and it’s a way to meet neighbors while doing something productive and learning useful skills.
We already know that the suburbs are an ideal place to start gardens everywhere:
- Suburbs already have a lot of the nation’s largest irrigated crop (lawn).
- Backyard gardens can be three times more productive than a same-sized plot of farmland.
- Cities could be 100% self-sufficient in produce needs (fruits and vegetables) if vacant lands and 9% of backyards were used more efficiently.
- Backyard gardens are closer than the grocery store, and healthier, too!
- Backyard gardens and chickens are all the rage!
These self-reliant activities make our communities more resilient in the face of food shortages or food recalls, more participatory and skillful, and healthier to boot.
However, we will have to be persistent advocates for gardens while our governments and institutions catch up to speed.
Community Garden Recap:
Our hillside community garden went on to be a 5-year project. In those years, we celebrated:
- 3,700 hours of volunteer work, mostly by residents of the community, as well as college students
- The installation of 300 feet of deer fencing
- The development of terraced vegetable gardens, a circle garden, and check log terraces
- The installation of a food forest with strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and pawpaws
- The construction of a 300-gallon rain catchment tank connected to the shed
- The installation of a compost center
- The sale of hundreds of vegetable and herb seedlings to local backyard gardeners
- The donation of hundreds of seedlings and seed packets to the local food pantry
- 19 community potlucks and other public events hosted
- 15 speaking engagements with college classes and community groups
- Over 10 educational classes and workshops offered to the local public
Because Mr. TAF and I have moved away, the future of the garden is uncertain. But we’re proud of our accomplishments, the lessons we learned, and the friends we made through hard work and cooperation.
Our garden may not have cured the environmental and social challenges of this suburb, but it empowered and inspired many people. The suburbs provide us with many opportunities for learning together how to be responsible land stewards, and what features encourage healthy lifestyles, cooperation, and problem solving skills in residents. The approach will be different for each community.
Note: We now live in a suburb with TWO community gardens and a supportive vibe for edible landscapes and backyard gardens.
What kinds of activities have you participated in to strengthen community bonds and improve community resiliency?