"We care — about the planet, the neighborhood and you."
A church garden changed my life. For many others, across the world, it is doing the same.
Creating or maintaining a community garden is a vital, new mission opportunity for United Methodist Women. Leah Nading, a dedicated horticultural therapist who works in low-income housing residences in North Carolina, says it this way when I asked how community gardening relates to the church's mission:
"I think this could begin a movement of community service on a whole new level. By allotting land for a community garden, a church is saying, ‘We care about the community, the planet, and about providing a source for personal enrichment on a spiritual level. We witness to the community about God's love while working side by side."
A community garden is a great way to involve everyone in the church. Environmentally sound, it can invite and unite your neighborhood. No matter where the garden is or who grabs a shovel, everyone shares the garden's bounty.
Community gardens are in fact anywhere a community of people joins together to garden. Churches and interfaith organizations are often perfect sites for a community garden. Faith and Bible study undergird it, mission goals guide it, and churches have land and mission institution settings to accommodate it. A community garden can be on the church grounds or in a neighborhood or specific mission agency. Food might be grown for families or the local food bank.
Best known in recent history are the allotment gardens in Europe and North America that were established during World War II to aid the war effort. These "Victory Gardens" provide the prototype for many gardens today. Today, community gardens are growing faster than they can be counted. A quick Internet search of "community church gardens" provides a list of 320 or more. Overall, in the United States and Canada, it is estimated that over 20,000 community gardens are active.
Benefits of gardening
The value of a citywide community and school gardening initiative is well illustrated through the experience of Burlington, Vt., a city of 40,000 people. The first community gardens in Burlington were established in 1972 by Gardens for All. The garden program now serves more than 300 households. Food Bank Community Garden in Winston-Salem, N.C., grew more than 5,000 pounds of produce with hundreds of volunteers coming to help from April to October 2010.
Benefits for churches include:
- A sense of place and connection. People often feel rootless today. Families are spread across countries, and immigrants find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. Gardening can be a great connector.
- A healthier population. Exercise, stress reduction, nutrition education and recreation are viable activities in a community garden. Community gardens provide an opportunity to grow local food and to know the source of our food.
- Lifelong religious education. God's care for the earth comes alive when we put our hands in the soil and especially when we share the bounty with others. Participants will gain new insights on teachings and stories in the Bible as they become more aware of the way things are grown. Some gardens are strictly for meditation.
- Social value. Community gardens can be neighborhood crossroads. Church members who work hand-to-hand and side-by-side form new connections as they discuss the types of tomatoes, the best way to control weeds, and how they can create a watering team. Recipes get swapped as well.
Often when a community garden is organized, its presence leads to improved community services, whether it's sanitation services, police or amenities such as streetlights. Turning a rubbish-filled vacant lot into an oasis of beauty improves the appearance of a street and strengthens housing. A church with a garden will attract a positive response from the community as it invites participation and offers real-life values to those in need.
A community garden is also a way to demonstrate environmental responsibility. Much can be done to improve the ecology of any town or city by preserving and sustaining open space. Conservation techniques are promoted for precious soil and water resources. Wildlife is protected. Horticulture is taught. Environmental stewardship is learned.
Children and youth involvement is a viable option with a garden. Gardening can help children and youth get the physical exercise they need as well as teach them healthy eating habits, an important benefit in light of the national health challenges of obesity and childhood diabetes. In addition, parents and teachers have become increasingly aware of the need to get children into nature.
Seniors can be involved with children and youth or in gardens specifically designed for them. Sixth-grade students from a junior high school in Roselle, N.J., joined forces with senior citizens to break ground on a plot of land behind their community center. One member of the senior citizen social group said she is happy the garden will be a learning experience for the students. Prepping the soil and planting seeds in small containers one week, they came together to plant vegetables in the garden. A raised garden bed designed for easy access will be installed for seniors. The garden will soon see broccoli, cucumbers, cilantro and other greens sprouting.
New immigrants find community gardens are places where they are welcomed, and they break the isolation of "outsider." The gardens can also be a setting where people from various parts of the world are leaders, sharing techniques from their cultural background and knowledge of growing diverse plants. For example, vertical gardening, especially to grow food, is a practice of many cultures in Asia.
Community gardening changes lives. It connects us with land and soil. It invites us to share our wisdom and our bounty. Perhaps there is a garden waiting for you.
Ellen Kirby is the volunteer coordinator for the Food Bank Community Garden in Winston-Salem, N.C. She is a former assistant general secretary for Christian Social Relations for the Women's Division, serving with the division in that and other positions from 1969-1993. Prior to moving to North Carolina, Ms. Kirby served 15 years as the founding director of the community outreach program of Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, N.Y.. She is the co-editor of the book Community Gardening and lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.