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Gardens Fed by CommunityPrint

Thriving Communities | January 26, 2010 | By Diane Conners

Gardens are transformed and nourished by a sense of community.

I remember the first two gardens I ever had. The first was when I was in seventh grade, and my parents bought a farmhouse and some land. My mom tried growing a garden, but gave up as she and I watched the Ohio clay soil bake in the summer heat and crack like rocks. I took up walking in the woods.

My next garden was 10 years later, the year after I married. We lived in Manistee, on a street that ended about three blocks from Lake Michigan. Now, instead of hard clay soil, I planted seeds in beach sand. Once again, the garden was lackluster. But this time something different happened. This time, an elderly neighbor gently chuckled at our efforts. It might need some fertilizer, he said.

Fertilizer. What a revelation. It wasn’t something anyone had ever taught me. And the difference between my two fledgling gardens was community. Just by gardening next door to someone I was blessed with a mentor.

Now, the words “community” and “garden” are transforming lives across the country, and a special event in Traverse City on Sunday, Jan. 31 highlights “The Promise of Gardens: How Gardens Build Community, Feed Us All and Reconnect Us to Nature,” featuring award-winning author Eric Toensmeier. Eric will speak about his work with the Tierra de Oportunidades urban farm project for Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, Mass., which started out as a singlecommunity garden.

There will be time for “visioning” community gardens in northwest Michigan, sharing ideas and resources, and connecting with others who may live near you. A community gardens panel and group discussion will feature people who are starting or dreaming of garden projects in Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Antrim, Wexford and Missaukee Counties.

In Traverse City, for example, I’ve seen that the community garden over at Grand Traverse Commons is an oasis for people whose city yards are too shady for a garden, or who don’t have land at all, or who just want to garden with others. They each have their own distinctive little plots, but they get new ideas as they stroll by the others, and they can ask each other questions. It’s also home to the nonprofit Little Artshram’s unique art and gardening programs for kids.

We at the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network are partnering with other community organizations to hold the Jan. 31 garden event. We believe that community gardens can grow the health and vibrancy of communities and that they rank right up there with parks, walkable communities, nearby farms, affordable housing, bike paths, and bus options as major community assets. They can help people grow their own food in tough economic times, give people an appreciation for the work that farmers do every day, introduce children to nature and the delights of good food, and build local economy. We hope they will become a part of the region’s Grand Vision.

All you have to do is look to southern Michigan to see its potential. In Detroit, where grocery stores have fled the inner city and left neighbors with no nearby place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, blighted lots are being turned into gardens; and now neighbors are taking it one step further and becoming urban farm entrepreneurs, selling fresh produce to neighbors and to schools cafeterias.

It’s all quite grand. But deep within it is also simplicity. Another neighbor, in another city, noticed my garden and saw that I was growing the frilly, curly parsley that restaurants use for garnishes. He offered me seeds that he saved from his own garden, seeds of the more flavorful flat Italian parsley-which at the time you couldn’t even find in grocery stores.  More neighborly knowledge enriched my life, and created a friendship that has lasted a lifetime.

Please, join us at The Promise of Gardens. It is from 12:30-4:30 p.m. at the Traverse Area District Library. For more information or to RSVP, call ISLAND at 231 480 4515 or send an email to yvonne@ARTmeetsEARTH.org.