View Electronic Edition

Community Gardening

America is now gardening. The word is that 51% of U.S. households grow some of their own food, according to Time —the greatest interest since World War II.  As gardening then was associated with patriotism, now community gardening is re-awakening neighborhood spirit with goals of community self-sufficiency.

Community gardening programs have grown rapidly in the past two years due to the popularity of the idea.  Initial funds often came from city or county governments.  Now the programs are becoming institutions themselves, and many are moving out from under the umbrella of a single source of funding. Generally, the more varied the sources of funds, the fewer the strings attached and the more politically independent the program can become.   Funding n health, education, housing, crime prevention and the arts, n both the public and private sector, is being broadened to include gardens.

A significant development in the past year is that individual programs, which are so locally evolved that no two are alike, are learning from each other now, and getting the sense of a whole with its parts.  Along with this, the realization is growing that gardens are directly tied to the wholeness of the cosmos.  Helping people garden spreads this realization.

The community gardening profession includes garden, organizers salaried by government, foundation grants, or contracted by institutions and businesses hosting therapeutic and employee gardens. Two new branches are developing: public works jobs for the unemployed to be individual garden site managers, and full-time professionals in gardening-related fields devoting their spare time to starting gardens.  Economically, these two options balance each other and the effect is a kind of socialism.

Among city gardening programs, San Francisco's is unique as a combination of programs —a City-run program for neighborhoods, a CETA federal employment program involving schools, and the Institute of Applied Ecology, my own non-profit organization, starting gardening programs with institutions and businesses. The Zen Center of San Francisco is an organization with a sophisticated garden operation reminiscent of some of the old state hospitals and prisons. Members grow more than enough food for themselves on a farm-scale organic garden a few miles from town. The large surplus is sold at righteous prices in the low income neighborhood where the Zen Center is located.

Because of the many problems of urban gardening, from vandalism to lead pollution (from cars), community gardens have been slow on developing gardening aesthetics and technique. The Biodynamic-French Intensive basics of compost, beds, and non-row planting have come easily to many West Coast gardens.  But gardeners are beginning to want more — a fuller understanding that leads to greater rapport with nature and bigger, more continual yields.

New technology is also needed.  A popular new program near Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Reservation involves a series of greenhouses protecting vegetables from the desert elements. However, these structures are gas-heated rather than solar, and they keep catching fire in the spring and winter winds.  Like urban gardening programs, the Navajos need the assistance of the research and educational organizations that focus on energy and food production techniques.

The closed systems of the New Alchemists in Canada and the carefully researched gardening techniques of Ecology Action in Palo Alto and the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara are geared for sophisticated community self-sufficiency programs of the future.   Rural and urban communities are beginning to develop both a need for self-sufficiency systems and a readiness to utilize them. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington D.C. is one of the first groups to work both with poor people and systems research.  It shouldn't be long before gardening's two extremes, its political roots and intellectual tops, are working together at last.

Government may initiate the bridging of this gap. Some of the most forward-looking programs in the planning stages of federal and state agencies involve local food production and distribution,  in California, the Department of Food and Agriculture is developing models for towns to maximize consumption of locally grown food, directing surplusses to poor people and institutions.

The Food Bank in San Jose is a program which is developing along these lines.  In Chico, California, a gardening program of farmworkers produces food for several hundred people. The gardeners formed a local political party and began winning city elections.

The low income sections of Palo Alto and adjacent Menlo Park have a farm-size garden project on the marshland of San Francisco Bay. Called "The Back 40 Acres," it has 245 plots involving 500 people, soon to expand to 1200.  Besides family plots, there are communal fields of grains and rice. This is a program of the future.

The leaders of most of these community based programs have come out of the woodwork with little previous gardening experience.   In California, over half of them are women, including several young, single mothers.

In the first years of community gardening, organizational skills have been the most important qualification for gardening leaders.  But the schools teaching gardening have totally neglected this.  Consequently gardening education programs have grown up separated from the community gardening movement.  However, the graduates of these schools possess a remarkable strength of gardening technique and philosophical understanding of nature.

The facilities of these schools, such as the Farm and Garden Project at UC Santa Cruz, are horticulturally elegant. While staying apart from the gardening masses, they have built inspiring botanical gardens which are primarily educational, but also serve as museum, laboratory and park. The Santa Cruz project cultivates not only vegetables, field crops, flowers, and herbs, but a wide array of fruits and berries as well.

Alan Chadwick, who founded the Santa Cruz project, now resides with his apprentices in Covelo, California, a tiny town in a Shangri-la valley complete with Indian reservation. Chadwick is building his Round Valley Garden Project to reflect his conviction that gardens are gifts of nature for man's spiritual enlightment.  In his Shakespearean voice, he describes Biodynamics as the search into classical knowledge for the laws of Nature, and the belief that following those laws will bring great rewards.

In New York City there is an energetic group of volunteers who share Chadwick's devotion to nature. They are the Green Guerrillas, a crew of 70, most of whom work 9 to 5 in related fields such as horticulture, biochemistry and landscape architecture.  In their spare time and without pay, they have assisted poor neighborhoods in establishing over 100 inner-city gardens and parks. The Green Guerrillas are the leaders in people/plant interaction. They have shown dramatically that people's desperate need for involvement with nature is a powerful resource in this country.   For example, with the Guerrillas, several neighborhoods worked continuously for three months just clearing the rubble from a piece of ground so they could garden.  In the Bowery, drunks built a greenhouse to sleep in on cold nights.

The therapeutic effects of gardening are rapidly being recognized by mental health and physical rehabilitation institutions. Degree programs in horticultural therapy are now offered at state universities in Rhode Island, Delaware and Georgia; also at Texas Tech, Kansas State, Michigan State, University of Florida, and Clemson College in South Carolina.

The application of gardening as a centering activity works both on the individual and on society.  Nature is a relentless force; given the chance it will push up through a crack in a parking lot; given time it also begins to realign human behavior. These many gardening programs in America seem to demonstrate that for many people gardening and not wilderness is the stepping off place for renewing commitment to nature.

In the garden of an elderly Italian and in the garden of a political commune there appeared the same sign:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth.

One is nearer God's heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.