ardeners are notorious givers. Pass-along plants, seeds, cuttings, and of course, extra zucchini is freely shared with anyone who asks. Perhaps it was this sharing spirit that launched the first community garden in America with the arrival of the first settlers in the New World. Planting a community garden benefited the entire community and was often a matter of survival. Some gardens were in direct response to a specific need of the early colonists.
During times of War, the need for community gardens increased. During the Civil War in the mid 1800s, every home had a garden maintained by women who harvested and preserved the crop to be sent to the men at the front. The government recruited people during World War I to grow Liberty Gardens as a way for every American to contribute to the war effort. This concept was repeated with Victory Gardens during WWII and produced 44 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S.
Besides the bounty of fresh vegetables, benefits of community gardens are numerous. Gardening can be a powerful therapy for both mind and body. Relief gardens in the Depression were promoted to improve people’s spirits and to provide work and food.
In present day America, thriving community gardens can be found on vacant lots, churches, schools and backyards and yield vegetables, flowers, herbs, fruits, native plants or trees and provide recreation, food production and community pride. The American Community Gardening Association assists gardening programs nationwide and reports nearly 100 community garden organizations in the U.S.
Nearly 20 years ago, Dallasite Don Lambert became involved in community gardening when he saw how a neighborhood is strengthened when people come together to work for a common purpose.
"About 1986, I started jumping into community gardening. It was something that needed to be done," says Lambert. The gardens already in existence had no organization.
"There were a few gardens around but there was no one in charge of them," says Lambert, who was determined to make it a cohesive, strong program.
After failing to find a local organization to run such an organization, Lambert plunged in and formed the non-profit Gardeners in Community Development (GICD) in 1994. Now six flourishing gardens can be found around the city. The newest garden, the Hope Community Garden, started in 2004, already has 20 beds planted and maintained by nearby neighbors. By the first summer, the garden was green with okra, tomatoes, peppers, basil and sweet potatoes.
"Those gardeners have been successful because it has been an incredible information learning center. Things they learn at the garden center can be used in their own gardens," says Lambert.
The gardens do more than grow produce, says Lambert, as it also "grows" people. GICD’s newsletter (available online) is called "Growing People News" and shows its dedication to enhance the quality of life in area neighborhoods and share the joy of gardening.
Yet another benefit of these gardens is the maintaining of cultural traditions for immigrants and Americans from all ethnic backgrounds. Tended by Laotian residents, the Peace Community Garden produces water spinach, bitter melon, wax gourd, taro stem, four angle beans and herbs that crowd the pathways. Rising above the fence line, tree eggplants hang in clusters of marble-sized fruits.
The oldest and best known is the East Dallas Community Garden, fondly called the "Asian Garden" by the locals. It is also one of the busiest gardens with more than fifty large plots on 3/4 of an acre lot.
Most plots are mass planted in season to bunching onions, greens, leaf lettuce or vine crops like longbeans, cucumbers and edible gourds.
The Cambodian and Laotian growers are present nearly every day hand working the soil, seeding and transplanting and harvesting.
Lambert reports that stepping into the gardens where English gives way to the hum of Asian voices, you feel that you are instantly transported into a lush and early tropical Asian countryside where rural traditions are kept alive. Visitors are aided by signs that explain the garden and what is growing. The Asian Garden also maintains a popular daily market where the gardeners tend tables bursting with fresh produce for sale.
"On the weekend, the garden is very busy, as many people visit, buy vegetables, and steep themselves in the language and rural traditions that this spot keeps alive," says Lambert. "All are welcome here, and this garden is a great Dallas treasure."
The Asian Garden is also the location of GICD’s Garden Resource Center. An annual Plant Sale, the organization’s major source of funding, is hosted every April. GICD also holds educational workshops, and events like cooking classes at the Asian Garden. All are welcome to the garden tours of this Dallas treasure.
Aside from the benefits of having a sunny vegetable plot and offering a cash crop for residents, the gardens also make a huge impact on local food pantries. Some of the gardens reserve a plot to grow crops exclusively for the needy and many gardeners donate 10 percent from their own plot as well.
"It is just so special to the people who get fresh vegetables," reports Lambert. "They (the food pantry workers) will tell me how some people who get fresh vegetables will cry. Then I wish I could do so much more."
Together, GICD donates an unbelievable amount of fresh picked vegetables each year. By early November 2004, 3,360 pounds had been donated – enough for 13,440 servings!
"I think that it makes a tremendous difference in the nutrition of people who are unable to purchase food for themselves," says Martha Doleshal, who works at the Southeast Emergency Food Center. "I believe the fresh vegetables add a tremendous amount of nutrition that we otherwise would not be able to give."
Raising vegetables at the Hope Garden, gardener Kate Macaulay finds harvesting the food bank beds the most rewarding.
"The last harvest, we collected over a hundred pounds of greens, sweet potatoes, peppers and fresh herbs," reports Macaulay. "When we bring these to the food pantries, there are always smiles on the faces of the women who take and sort our goodies. They are happy to see fresh foods, which are a contrast to the pre-packaged foods normally donated, and I am happy too."
Funding is an ever constant need and GICD was grateful to receive a Heifer International grant in 2004. Heifer International (www.heifer.org) is a non-profit organization that has assisted families in need worldwide since 1944.
GICD’s goal is to add more gardens by providing support and training for new neighborhood groups. While most of the gardens are maintained by local residents, volunteers are always welcome to cultivate a plot, help spread mulch, harvest crops and transport the produce to area pantries.
Anywhere there is a vacant lot or unused land and interested gardeners, a community garden can thrive, a community can be strengthened and new friends can be found.
For more information, visit GICD’s website at www.gardendallas.org or send requests to Don Lambert, 901 Greenbriar Lane, Richardson, TX 75080.
Interested gardeners can also contact the ACGA for information about community gardening in their area by visiting www.communitygarden.org or by calling (877) 275-2242.