Gardens feed neighborhoods and neighborly feelings

October 14, 2009

The Rev. Peter Rood, rector of Holy Nativity Church in Westchester, California, tells of being contacted by City Council member Bill Rosendahl, who wondered if it were possible to plant a garden in the atrium of his office building. The spot proved too shady to be promising, but before they knew it, gardeners from Holy Nativity and Rosendahl were talking about the possibly of turning 4,000 square feet of adjacent city-owned lawn into a community garden.

"The city of Los Angeles clearly knew about our garden and appreciated it," said Rood, "but I could tell that they were bewildered."

The Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles is a suburban area where not long ago covenants banned residents from growing gardens in their front yards. Now the Episcopal church at the corner of 83rd Street and Dunbarton is very conspicuously doing so.

Holy Nativity's garden is among those churchbased efforts not only growing food, but also serving as inspiration and teaching centers for others in the community. At the Church of Our Saviour, Dallas, Becky Smith's standard response to other churches interested in community gardening is: "Come and see." Through participation in volunteer days, others have been encouraged to get started, including the planters of four new gardens in the Diocese of Dallas this year.

New gardening efforts began at churches around the country this spring and summer. Three new gardens have been harvested in the Diocese of Northern California, for example, while a fourth, at Holy Family, Rohnert Park, is planting a cover crop to prepare for next spring's opening.

Increasing food security
The most obvious mission of these gardens is to increase food security in the congregations' communities.

By mid-season, gardeners at the Parish Pea Patch, St. Luke's Church, Renton, Wash., had passed their goal of 500 pounds of produce from their small garden. Combined with nonperishables collected from parishioners, more than a ton of food was donated to the Renton Food Bank, said Tom Bakan, gardener and parishioner.

Recognizing their efforts, the Seattle Foundation awarded them a $5,000 grant for further development of their garden and related efforts.

At Food Pantry LAX, named for the nearby Los Angeles International Airport, more than 60 percent of people receiving bags of food have jobs and shelter but just can't make ends meet, Rood said. So Holy Nativity is assessing yields per unit area in their garden and registering neighborhood fruit trees from which they glean. The parish initiated a "Yes We Can with One Can" drive, asking all who meet or worship in the building to bring an item for the pantry.

At the northern end of California's Central Valley, Anderson-Cottonwood Christian Assistance, an ecumenical nonprofit that manages a food bank serving a third of Shasta County, established a garden at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Anderson. The church supplies the land and the water. Community businesses and leaders supplied infrastructure materials needed in this first year, such as pipe for irrigation and deer fencing.

Individuals who tend 23 of the 30 plots donate 25 percent of their yield to the food bank, and the remaining plots are grown communally for that purpose. The twice-a-week delivery of 100 or more pounds of food has encouraged other home gardeners to donate their excess to the food bank, said Garden Committee Chair Lyle Amlin. "I estimate for each pound of food that we bring in from the community garden, the other gardeners bring in two."

The Trinity Cathedral Charlie Comella Community Garden in Cleveland had a record month in August of this fourth year of their existence, said Scott Blanchard, garden leader. Volunteers at the four-year-old garden harvested more than 1,000 pounds of produce – potatoes, tomatoes, collard greens, cabbage, green beans and squash – for downtown Cleveland's homeless and hungry people.

Gardeners see an increasing need for their produce. "Just this last year, with the changes in the economy," Smith of Dallas said, "we have gardeners in our individual plots who have been laid off from jobs they've had for 20 years." Some volunteers helping with harvesting have stretched home budgets and go home with food.

"Maybe we are being led to have a pantry on site, or a soup kitchen," Smith said, adding that they must pray about doing more in this time of high unemployment. She estimated Our Saviour Community Garden would donate at least two and half tons of produce to the food pantry this year.

Good stewardship
Besides improving human health through increasing the availability of fresh seasonal produce, community gardens contribute to the planet's health by reducing the miles that food travels from garden to plate.

Turning church lawns into gardens increases diversity in the landscape, and growing vegetables organically lessens fossil fuel inputs. Composting on site reduces hauling to and from the garden to bring in soil amendments and remove waste, noted Rood. "This means fewer big trucks burning fossil fuels and spewing fumes."

Holy Nativity's gardeners, in the Mediterranean climate of Southern California, installed cisterns, to capture water. The Rev. Kenneth Kroohs of St. Christopher's Church in humid High Point, N.C., has been collecting condensation from the church office air conditioners to water their patch of tomato plants.

Many church-based community gardens are edged with perennials and wild flowers to encourage a diversity of beneficial insects. Church of Our Saviour maintains bee hives and holds an annual honey-harvest event.

Rebuilding community
Just as gardens increase the diversity of flora and fauna, they can bring together a variety of people from the communities surrounding them, some of whom might not otherwise meet.

Adult gardeners join with children and youth in the garden. St. Michael’s garden in Anderson, Calif., plans to welcome gardeners from an adjacent grade school next season.

In Akron, Ohio, the summer education program at St. Paul's Church was rooted in the parish garden and community hunger concerns. Youngsters fashioned tomato cages, chopped cabbage for soup at the nearby hunger center and visited an organic farm.

"The children were delighted to work the garden," said Sheila Svoboda, the church's family minister, "and they felt a wonderful pride to see concretely the fruits of their labor."

At the Our Saviour garden, youth groups from around the Diocese of Dallas helped with the summer Tuesday harvests for the food pantry. At Holy Nativity, a group of young women built new garden beds raised for accessibility, a high school servicelearning project preparing the way for a new group of gardeners.

At St. George's Church in Carmichael, Calif., where parishioners and neighbors both have plots, a group of seniors from a nearby apartment complex are planning with their activities director to plant a winter garden to help supplement their food budgets year 'round.

Deacon Bob Olsen at St. George's points to one common success factor in community gardens: "I know a lot of our congregation who don't have garden plots are excited to see what's going on with the gardens, and when they talk about the garden you know they feel they are part of something bigger than our little church – that we are actually being neighbors to our neighbors."

Dallas' Smith noted, "It's important that churches do this to be externally focused, not to bring people in. We have five more members because of the garden, but that's not the ministry.

The ministry is to be a part of the neighborhood and give back."

Future dreams
When annual vegetables and flowers are a success, community gardeners may begin to think long-term, for perennial yields. Fruit trees at Trinity Cathedral's garden in Cleveland are bearing in this fourth year of gardening. The Church of Our Saviour is putting in a new growing area, part of which will include a small vineyard with table grapes for the pantry and a row for making sacramental wine for the congregation.

Within a mile of the Church of Our Saviour, Smith said, 40 percent of the families have an income below $25,000, and the neighborhood is what food-system analysts call a food desert – that is, without retail outlets for healthful food. She envisions an on-site market to sell the garden's organically grown produce at an affordable price.

"I actually have this fun dream of pushing one of those ‘ice cream' carts or driving an 'ice cream' truck," through the neighborhood, she said, "but with our vegetables and fruit."

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