Community Gardens grow people

 

Do you know people who are obsessed with gardening? I knew such a person and honestly I just did not get it. She talked about her garden as if it were a living breathing child. She spent hours in her garden and had the dirt under her nails and a pain in her back to prove it. She even shared some of her bounty with me and yes the tomatoes were good. But was it worth the investment when she could just run into the store and buy whatever variety she wanted? I have never understood the appeal of gardening.

Then, late last summer, my husband and I invested in a well, septic system and a travel trailer on our property in rural Virginia. This investment meant that after 10 years, the port-a-potty could finally be removed! (Don’t worry it was cleaned weekly by a local service.) It meant that we could finally bathe with hot water instead of wading through the creek or sneaking into the showers at the national park down the road. This was HUGE for my family and life changing for me. I love this place. It is the gift that allows me to recharge and reflect on all God is doing in our city.

Something happened when we finally got running water. I got a strange urge to plant a garden. I have never even been able to keep even a cactus alive, so this is completely out of character for me. My garden is uniquely me. The vegetables that I have selected are those I like best, the growth of these vegetables is dependent on the soil, sun, and rain that are available in this specific plot of land. Even the planters are unique. I hate to waste anything, so I recycled old recycling bins and turned them into container gardens. If you have any lying around I can take them off your hands!

I ate my first salad out of my garden this weekend. It was the best salad I have ever eaten in my life. Not because the kale and the lettuce were superbly grown, but because they were home grown. There is a strange connection between the gardener and the garden. It does feel like a living breathing child. I understand for the first time, why people get so obsessed with their gardens.

The lessons I have learned so far about gardening mirror those I have learned in my community building efforts. Every community is incredibly unique. The tastes, preferences, gifts, and culture of each one direct the selection, nurture and growth that occurs.

In the North Central, Richmond neighborhood, the residents desired greater community unity, so they planted block clubs, host porch parties, and convene monthly conversations on race and community.

In Broadwater, the residents desired greater opportunities for children and youth so they support a young leaders group and have teens operating a weekly science club for children, weekly dance workshops, teen get togethers, a mentoring program, and periodic family friendly special events.

Shady Hill, Crystal Lakes, Hillside Court and so on, all have very unique community building efforts from hot cocoa at the bus stop to community run sports programs. The “fruit” of these community gardening efforts are all very unique.

The other similarity, is that those who are doing the planting, watering and harvesting in these neighborhoods, have the same affection, dedication and near obsession that I have with my literal garden. As they are growing their communities’ gifts, they are also growing a deep love for the people in their own hearts and across their communities. There is no love like the love a parent has for a child. When we give birth to something, when something grows out of our love for a place and its people, it is infused with a power that cannot be replicated.

Now imagine, a large institutional farmer came onto my land. They saw my pathetic recycling bins, my make-shift watering system, my poorly tilled soil, and the fact that my spinach plants are turning yellow. They would judge me unfit to call myself a gardener. Now imagine they decided to “help” me. They brought their tractors onto my land and in one hour they planted a garden 10 times the size of the one I tilled by hand for the past month. Then they planted the vegetables they felt my soil would best support, without consulting my taste buds. They would put in automatic watering systems so no one would have to stand over the garden every day. I would end up with a lot more veggies, some I may even like. But it would no longer be my garden and it would no longer be born out of my love for this place.

This is what institutional responses to community problems can do to local residents. It can make them feel that their modest attempts to love their neighbors and their neighborhoods are pointless, inept and un-needed.

At the ABCD Festival last summer, Jody Kretzmann said, “We are called to be defenders of the small.” This love of the small, home grown acts of kindness and love is at the heart of asset-based community development.

Everywhere I turn, I bump into churches and community groups who are planting community gardens. Some because they think the neighbors will all join in and they can build relationships through their gardening efforts. Others are doing it because they have land and feel like this is the best use of their asset. Others because they believe everyone should have fresh fruits and vegetables. One told me they are doing it because they got money from the local food bank to do it.

When I am asked if I think community gardens are a good community building activity, my answer is always the same – it depends. It depends on who owns the garden, who selected the vegetables, who chose the plot of land, who stands over it with a watering hose. Some falsely believe that if they build it, the neighbors will come. My experience is that this is not the case. We short cut the process if we do not start with the neighbors from the point of inception.

We can think of community gardening in two ways. The first is the traditional one where we grow vegetables to nurture healthy bodies. The second is a metaphorical one where we grow relationships to nurture a healthy community. In a true community growing garden, we sow the dreams of the neighbors and water it with the gifts, talents and love that people have for their own community.

I love this proverb:

If your vision is for a year, plant wheat.
If your vision is for ten years, plant trees.
If your vision is for a lifetime, plant people.

Here is my version:

If your vision is for a year, plant a vegetable garden.
If your vision is for ten years, plant a relief program.
If your vision is for a lifetime, plant great neighbors
and you will grow a true community garden.

What is growing in your garden?

Originally published at WendyMcCaig.com | Thank you Wendy!


Wendy McCaig holds a Master of Divinity degree and has served more than twenty years as a ministry leader, the first ten years working in the local church and
another dozen leading Embrace Richmond, a faith-based nonprofit doing work in under-resourced neighborhoods. Wendy coaches and trains congregational leaders
in how to do Christian community development from an asset-based community development perspective.

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