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Community gardens grow more than fresh food

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CANTON - This is a revival of a column I wrote a few years ago about community gardens. I couldn’t resist digging it out of the mothballs because, like other local food and gardening efforts it’s gaining momentum with wide interest.

When I last encouraged folks to look into community gardens there were just a handful in the north country. Last summer, when Adirondack Harvest published its annual local food guide, we listed 21 community and school gardens, just in Essex County!

My introduction to community gardens took place 25 years ago when my husband and I, devout gardeners and homesteaders, abruptly moved from rural green of Vermont to Minneapolis and St. Paul (yes, we started out in one city and a year later moved to the other one).

While we adored the Twin Cities, there were no backyard gardens for us. And so there entered a new concept in my life: community gardens. We discovered that plots of land had been cordoned off in, among other places, parks and vacant lots. Each area was divided into many 20’ by 20’ plots with water access. For a small fee we were able to secure a space, tilled for us at the beginning of the season.

Our first year was a challenge – the garden had been created in the site of an old parking lot. We spent considerable effort removing hidden chunks of asphalt from the soil and worrying about potential toxins. In later years we found space in other community gardens, sometimes renting more than one plot to support our craving to work the land.

When we moved to the north country I promptly forgot about community gardens, dismissing them as purely urban creations. We had, for us, a crazy abundance of open, fertile land, begging to sprout whatever seeds we sowed. Wasn’t this everyone’s experience with gardening in this region? It surprised me when I heard about a community garden being organized in a mostly rural Adirondack town. Now they’re springing up all over the region and I look at them in a new light.

Why would residents of a town like Keene or Jay need garden space in anything but their own yards? Yes, I was totally presumptuous to assume everyone had a large yard. And even if they did have a yard they might not want chop it up with a tiller. Perhaps they are only renting their accommodations. Or maybe their property is deep in the woods (lots of shade, but not great for ripening those tomatoes) or the soil would just take too much amending to create a healthy substrate for vegetables. Turns out, there are lots of reasons for wanting to plant those seeds in a place other than your own yard.

Now add the “community” part of it and you’ll see why this idea can produce such great benefits. Community gardens are an excellent place for like-minded gardeners to gather. You can see what everyone else is growing, swap gardening tips, and spend time connecting with your neighbors. In Minneapolis we often tended plots alongside Hmong and other ethnically diverse families. They were all friendly folks who grew a fascinating array of vegetables that were very different from ours. We learned about a whole new array of delicious foods! Community building, fresh air, education, healthy food – endless benefits.

Is a community garden what you’ve been waiting for so that you can grow and harvest your own local food? Check with your town – maybe you are the one to get it started. For more information on how to get the ball rolling you can contact Adirondack Harvest or your local Extension office.

Laurie Davis is an Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the Coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Office phone number: 962-4810 x404. Email lsd22@cornell.edu.

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