Growing healthy food and communities: Getting dirty does a body good
Around Austin, people are banding together to get dirty — in vegetable gardens. Gardening as a community does more than produce fresh, healthy food, which is reason enough to do it. It also creates relationships, teaches useful skills and empowers some of those who need it most. Think of it as low-cost, low-tech community building.
Ask Dick Pierce, a permaculture teacher, certified master gardener and long-term advocate for community-building through gardening, about the benefits of gardening, and you’ll get an earful.
“First, there is nutrition. It’s well-established that the more local the food, the fresher the food. It’s also ripe and in-season, compared to food in a supermarket that traveled, on average, 1,500 miles and may have been picked as many as five weeks ago.”
Gardening provides great exercise, Pierce adds, and it’s a great family sport, bringing together not just parents and kids, but grandparents and grandchildren. “Gardening bridges the age gap. Young people find out older people really do know things, they can do magic with gardens.”
Gardening provides a chance to do things for other people. “Anyone who has ever knocked on a door and said ‘I have some extra tomatoes’ knows it is affirming to give and to have something given to you,” he says.
More and more faith communities in Austin are gardening and helping other churches and neighborhoods start gardens. Organizations serving the poor and homeless are tapping into the power of gardening as well.
Genesis Gardens is a community food project of Mobile Loaves and Fishes through its Community First! housing program. Growing fresh, healthy food is a big part of the project, but it’s also about building a strong community and empowering the homeless.
“What we do stems from the reality that all people desire lives centered around valuable, purpose-giving work,” says Steven Hebbard, known officially as Good Soil Developer at MLF.
“They want to make enough from their job to pay their bills, but they also want to know that they’re doing good work and making the world a better place. We’re settling our Community First residents into a rhythm of work that has a multiplier effect of dignity and value, blessing them with a little money, blessing their poor neighbors with better food than they could ever afford, and blessing a little patch of wilderness by transforming it into a flourishing garden from the work of their hands. All the while, they are building relationships and skills that add to their quality of life.”
There are two Genesis Garden locations so far. The project has weekly volunteer opportunities open to anyone, a short orientation required — a good option for those who can’t commit to their own full-time garden.
In early May, the River City Youth Foundation on South Pleasant Valley Road started Austin’s first Good Food Garden. These gardens, created by the Food Network in partnership with Share Our Strength, a non-profit working to end childhood hunger in America, give children and community volunteers hands-on experience planting, caring for, harvesting and preparing meals from the produce generated. The Austin garden contains a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs, and the Foundation plans to use it in its summer camps, which will be promoting health and nutrition.
Austin is blessed with a number of community gardens, too. In addition to camaraderie, seeds and tools, Pierce says, these have plenty of sunshine, something often in short supply in shady city neighborhoods.
Sunshine Community Gardens, begun in 1979, has more than 200 individual plots on three acres of land near N. Lamar and 45th Street. Sunshine also offers educational opportunities with garden tours, donations of seed and plants and meeting space for other non-profits. A number of plots are set aside as designated gardens to grow fresh produce for the Micah 6 Food Bank, a coalition of faith communities serving the homeless in the University of Texas area.
Pierce points out that gardening is even a way for urban dwellers to do something for the environment.
“You’ll save water and cut down on fuel used for food transportation and processing, as well as cut out use of chemicals and most equipment that uses oil. Covering the ground helps reduce CO2 emissions as well.”
Through Citizen Gardener, Pierce teaches a 10-hour course that provides hands-on organic gardening instruction. Austin can be a difficult area to garden, with alkaline soils, spotty rain and busy schedules, he says.
“We teach how to build small backyard gardens that will work in central Texas, in four-foot by four-foot raised beds. You can plant intensively in that space and get a great deal of produce. Three of four beds will give you enough for a family of four, and you can give your children their own bed.”
Pierce adds that one of Austin’s gardening pluses is two gardening seasons, from January to May, and late August to early December. Often, when a garden doesn’t work, he says, it’s because someone planted in April and tried to harvest in July.
Still not sure? Go to a farmer’s market and start seeing what produce is available what time of year. Volunteer on one of the farms to get the feel of it. Take citizen gardener, or green corn project, they go out primarily on east side and build a garden with a family and leave it to them to tend
Many gardeners say there is a spiritual side to the activity, as well.
“I’ve never had someone disagree that there is something special about being in the garden,” says Pierce. “It’s tranquil, relaxing, and some say spiritual. Everybody feels something they can’t explain in normal sensory terms, something that feels good. It’s relaxation in addition to exercise, and where else can you get that?”