Community gardens may be experiencing a renaissance, but they’re certainly not new. Historically people have turned to community gardens for food security during times when money is tight, such as in the late 1800s, during World War I (when they were called “Liberty Gardens”), during the oil crisis of the 1970s and now, during the Great Recession.
“When I first started this job eight years ago, I only occasionally got questions about community gardening, but now it’s very popular,” explains Linda Whitlock, consumer horticulture and master gardener program coordinator for the Kalamazoo County MSU extension.
Kalamazoo County is a hotspot for community gardens. There are more than 45 community gardens in the greater Kalamazoo area — 10 more than reported in 2013. The idea of community gardening attracts those who want to eat healthier and locally and who want to disconnect from everyday technology and “get back to nature.” But sometimes the idea is easier than the action and it’s definitely not as easy as running to the grocery store.
Why community gardens?
Support is one of the most obvious advantages, says Whitlock. Gardening in a community garden means sharing the burden of growing with a group of other people. Going on vacation? There’s someone staying who can water your plants. Got slugs? Someone knows the solution.
There are also shared resources at many community gardens, like water, tools and mulch. Every community garden works differently. Some grow a crop together and share equally, some support individuals cultivating their own plot, and some operate as you-picks. No Matter how much support a gardener wants or needs, there is a community garden in the greater Kalamazoo area that offers it.
Whitlock points a more basic advantage too: “The best-tasting produce is the produce you just picked out of a garden.”
And there are educational programs hosted at many gardens that teach the history of horticulture, the intricacies of growing and where food comes from. Getting away from it all and gaining a sense of accomplishment don’t hurt, either.
“With gardening, you have to make a conscious choice to do it and sacrifice something else,” says Tabitha Farms Community Garden owner Katie Pearson. “It’ll replace watching TV or even just feeling exhausted. But it’s empowering – there’s something about being in the dirt or being close to nature, and it’s something that’s getting lost.”
How to get started?
There are a lot of great resources for anyone looking to start or become a part of a community garden in Southwest Michigan, and the first stop is Common Ground, a collaborative organization made up by the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, Fair Food Matters, the MSU Kalamazoo County Extension and the Kalamazoo Nature Center.
Pick a garden that both caters to your needs as a gardener and is close to you by perusing a list of local community gardens at CommonGroundKalamazoo.com (click on “find a garden”). Gardens are listed by area, from Kalamazoo and Portage to Comstock, Schoolcraft and Galesburg; clicking on each garden link provides info about how the garden is run, including how much participation is needed, tools and resources provided and cost of registration (many offer sliding scale or free registration for low-income families).
Contact the garden coordinator to get set up and then get educated. Follow the “classes” button on the Common Grounds site to find a listing of programs, including many free “getting started” workshops, hosted by MSU Extension.
Deciding what to grow in a community garden depends on a number of factors, including sunlight, what grows well in Southwest Michigan, soil quality, the season and whether or not your community garden operates as independent plots or as a whole. Garden coordinators can help decide what might be best to grow.
If you’d like to start your own garden, go to the “start a garden” section of the Common Ground website or visit KalamazooLandBank.org to find gardens to adopt. The Land Bank works to transform blighted and unused land, and community gardens are one of the focuses of the organization.
“Community gardens offer a wonderful opportunity to reclaim spaces that were underutilized,” says Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank. “The spaces become much more attractive and become spaces that people appreciate and enjoy rather than avoid or are afraid of.”
You’ve got vegetables. Now what?
Growing a successful crop of veggies is incredibly rewarding, but sometimes it’s a challenge to keep the veggies fresh after picking, to decide what to cook with the new produce or to decide what to do with extra produce.
“When you have fresh foods, unless you’re eating it raw, you have to process it – cooking it, freezing it and canning it,” explains Pearson.
Pearson started her garden more conventionally, but since she lives in a low-income neighborhood where many people work two or three jobs, or are physically or mentally disabled, she grows most of the produce herself and gives it away. It works better for her to do the work and offer up the produce, which she provides for free every Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. during growing months at the garden (111 Dixie Ave., Kalamazoo).
Pearson suggests freezing kale, spinach and other vegetables in bags and using them from frozen in soup, eggs and other dishes. “If you’re going to cook it, you can freeze it,” she explains. Pearson also suggests asking her, at her free farm stand, or any garden organizer how to cook, prep or store particular vegetables. A lot of the time, they’ll have great suggestions.