BY: JENNA LEE, MS & MARY PURDY, MS, RDN
A LITTLE HISTORY
Ever thought of growing one’s own peas as a political act? Though they have always been a part of the American landscape, home vegetable gardens became especially popular starting around World War I when millions of Americans started “victory gardens” to support the war effort. Not only did these gardens provide almost 40% of the nation’s fresh produce during the early 1940’s, they also boosted the nation’s morale and created a sense of empowerment for the American citizen. The post-World War II era saw a major shift away from small-scale urban and suburban gardening towards large scale rural agriculture, which was more efficient but has had major consequences for our environment. These days, home and neighborhood gardening can have a multitude of benefits for our health, the environment and our communities.
OUR FOOD SYSTEM TODAY
Most of the food we eat in the US today is produced in an industrialized system that is not only harmful to the environment, but unsustainable for the future. But there is hope! Growing some of our own food at home or within our own communities can help mitigate the impact of industrial farming on the environment. Did you know that the average distance our food travels from farm to plate is a staggering 1,500 miles? Having a garden at home or nearby in your community can cut this distance to virtually zero, reducing some of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by transporting food all over the country and world.
WHY PLANTS AND GARDENS ARE AWESOME
There are some direct benefits simply from having more plant life around us. Plants actually make the air around us cleaner by filtering out tiny particles of pollution. Next time you are in a lush garden, take a deep breath and notice how fresh the air feels. Growing plants native to our area supports local biodiversity, the collection of different plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms that are native to a particular area. Having a diverse collection of native plants provides crucial habitat for pollinating insects and animals, whose numbers have massively declined in recent years. That geranium you planted just created a happy home for a neighborhood ladybug!
Gardening not only benefits the environment; it also supports our own health and well-being. Gardening is a great way to get our bodies moving and has been shown to be particularly helpful for older adults. It’s also wonderful for our mental health, reducing stress, improving self-esteem and providing a sense of accomplishment. I can’t tell you how proud I felt when I saw my first blueberry emerge from what started as an unimpressive shrub. Did I do that? Through gardening we strengthen our relationship with our environment and can experience the healing power of nature.
Home and community gardens provide better access to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially for those in food deserts. 23 million Americans currently live in food deserts – areas where access to affordable fresh foods (especially fruits and vegetables) is limited or doesn’t exist because there just aren’t any grocery stores in the area. Bringing gardens into food deserts is one small way we can start to tackle the problem of food access in these communities. And it works! Research shows us that people who participate in gardening are 3.5 times more likely to eat the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
Too often the high price tag of organic produce makes it inaccessible to many. Home gardens produce organic fruits and vegetables at a fraction of the price at the grocery store. One study estimated that a 10×20-foot garden plot could produce between $500-$700 of produce per year! Additionally, gardening without pesticides lets helpful bacteria and fungi to create the rich organic matter in the soil that plants need to thrive. Plants grown in rich soil are actually more nutritious than those grown in pesticide-depleted soil. Having gardens in our own homes and communities gives us the power to control the health of our soil, and in turn support our health.
GARDENS AND COMMUNITY
Aside from the environmental and health benefits, community gardens can facilitate connections among the people that live in that area. They bring together people of all different ages, genders, cultures, races, economic and educational backgrounds and allow them to learn how to work together around a common goal. But despite the potential benefits, issues with marginalization in community gardening are not uncommon. Urban gardens in black and Latino communities have often been led by young, white people that are not residents of those communities and therefore cannot fully understand it’s needs. There is a crucial need for empowered leaders chosen from within a community to be the leaders of urban gardening projects so that they may best serve the members of that community.
INEQUALITY IN THE SOIL
Inequality sometimes even reaches down to the very soil of our gardens. Contamination and pollution tend to be much higher in black and Latino communities, increasing the risk of exposure for those gardening in the area. However, there are ways of avoiding pollution that may be present in many urban centers. You can use the comprehensive guide to soil safety for urban gardeners published by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future to help guide you.
At their best, neighborhood gardens in urban areas can serve as community centers, creating opportunities for education around countless topics including food and nutrition, land stewardship, environmental science and conservation, to name just a few. Neighborhood gardens can also promote a sense of self-reliance in a community. An article written about urban community gardening by women in Detroit explains, “the sense of empowerment and food sovereignty gained by women gardeners in Detroit instigated conversation over how they might gain control over other aspects of their lives, including access to affordable housing, clean water, community policing and a decent public education.” Gardening definitely won’t solve all the problems in a community, but it can be a simple place to start. Looking to connect with a community garden in your area? Enter your zip code to find out about gardens where you live!
READY TO BE A GARDEN REBEL?
Feeling inspired to start your own garden? Here are three crucial things to remember. First, start out small. Think simple and easy: a pot of herbs, a tomato plant, a few heads of lettuce. Check out this list of vegetables that are easiest to grow for beginners! Once you get more comfortable you can start expanding your garden little by little. Second, plant what you like! You’ll enjoy the process a lot more if you grow things that you love to eat. Lastly, enjoy it! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and simply notice how good it feels to watch something grow. Whether it’s a pot of herbs on a windowsill or a flourishing community farm, every garden is a benefit not only to our environment, but to ourselves. Get out there and get planting!