Public gardening programs from coast to coast give kids and adults a chance to get some dirt under their fingernails and discover the fun and satisfaction in gardens and the natural world. Healthy vegetables are part of the appeal, but the focus isn't only on food. The goal of these programs is to make the world a better place -- one gardener and one green space at a time.
Gardening for good can take many forms. Neighborhood gardens tend to be gathering places, where all are welcome. Gardens and gardening programs for veterans, seniors, and disabled children and adults create opportunities for people to connect with nature and cultivate new hope. Public orchards and berry patches put fresh fruit within everyone's reach. School gardens and farm-to-school gardening projects get kids used to healthy foods and encourage teachers to make gardening and nature part of the curriculum.
City Blossoms, a public gardening program based in Washington, D.C., has designed more than 50 urban educational gardens across the country, in collaboration with schools and community organizations. The group has 13 sites in the Washington area, where kids and teens from ages 3 to 19 take care of flower and vegetable gardens in their neighborhoods. Teachers and adult volunteers help, of course, but kids are the heart of the program. "We create spaces for young people to empower themselves," says Rebecca Lemos-Otero, co-founder and director of City Blossoms. "They have a sense of pride and ownership, and when we see kids taking on these roles on their own, it's very exciting."
Nature and art go together, Lemos-Otero says, and garden art and artistic expression are part of the program. Kids paint welcoming signs for their plots, make labels for the plants, and create garden sculptures. The art projects "are a good way to bring people into the garden as a first step," Lemos-Otero says. "Maybe they're not ready to garden, but they're ready to do art."
Over the course of a summer, and through the years, the kids develop along with their gardens. They learn about community and culture, make friends, and develop new interests and abilities. They also take these skills and interests out into the world with them when they get older. Kids from the City Blossoms program have even gone on to environmental studies in college, Lemos-Otero says.
In Madison, Wisconsin, Community Groundworks brings kids and gardens together and also works with veterans and disabled adults. The organization, founded in 2001, has developed a five-acre community farm, holds workshops and maintains a demonstration vegetable garden on the grounds of the state capitol. More than 3,500 children participate in the Community Groundworks gardening programs for children and adolescents, says Ginny Hughes, the group's education director.
Gardens do not have to be very large to make a big difference, Hughes says. Even in a small plot, kids -- and adults -- can learn the basics of planning, planting, tending and harvesting vegetables and flowers. An important benefit is that gardening naturally leads to healthy eating habits, she says. "When kids are involved in the process of growing, they are more likely to eat what they grow," she says. "They may say 'I hate broccoli,' but then they try it and they love it."
Community Groundworks also runs a half-acre organic farm in Madison where school and community groups, families and teachers cultivate crops without using artificial fertilizers or pesticides. What these budding farmers don't eat themselves is donated to a local food pantry -- last year, the gardeners donated 3,000 pounds of produce. During the summer months, kids in the program come to the farm for three hours a day, four days a week. "We develop relationships, and they see all the cool things in the garden that you can't understand if you see them just once," Hughes says.
In Kansas City, Missouri, an organization called The Giving Grove has planted more than 2,000 fruit trees in 135 schoolyards, church properties and community gardens throughout the city's metropolitan area. The program, which is part of Kansas City Community Gardens, enlists the help of volunteers to plant and maintain apple, pear and peach trees; berry bushes; and nut trees that thrive in Kansas City's climate and urban conditions. The volunteers become the stewards of orchards in their neighborhoods. Giving Grove's goal is to create sustainable and reliable sources of healthy food, to raise awareness of smart food choices, and -- in the process of helping neighbors and volunteers plant, care for and harvest fruit -- to bring communities together.
The Philadelphia Orchard Project has similar goals, working with volunteers and horticultural professionals to plan, plant and maintain orchards in the city. POP has installed orchards at schools, churches and community gardens, and supports orchards at mission centers and the city's prison complex.
Enthusiasm for public fruit plantings and community orchards has spread across the country to Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, Boston and Portland, Oregon, among other cities. Good-news gardening groups are growing for a reason: There can never be too many places for people to come together in peaceful, productive and rewarding enterprises. Gardens are a natural place to start.
In big cities and out in the country, gardening organizations are encouraging communities to discover the fun and satisfaction of gardens by developing green spaces and cultivating people's interest in growing food and flowers and enjoying some of the small wonders of nature. There's no single template for success, but the work of these organizations stands out:
-- City Blossoms (cityblossoms.org) promotes healthy neighborhoods through community gardening. The organization provides free programs for schools and organizes lively after-school and summer programming for children and adults, primarily in the Washington, D.C., area. City Blossoms also develops programs and curricula for garden programs nationwide.
-- The Giving Grove (givinggrove.org) has planted more than 2,000 fruit and nut trees in communities in the Kansas City area, with a projected annual harvest of more than 250 tons of healthy fruit. Orchards in parks, community gardens, and on school and church grounds are intended to provide neighborhoods with easy access to fresh fruit in season. Volunteers become garden stewards, working alongside Giving Grove staff.
-- Philadelphia Orchard Project (phillyorchards.org) works with communities, schools and local groups to plant orchards of fruit trees and edible plants. POP helps design and plant the orchards, and trains volunteers to care for the trees and plants.
-- Community Groundworks (communitygroundworks.org) in Madison, Wisconsin, brings people, gardens and nature together. A five-acre community farm, kids' gardens, gardens in schoolyards, workshops and other garden programming foster healthy lifestyles and diets. Curricula and guides suggest possibilities that would work in any community.
-- Urban Food Forestry (urbanfoodforestry.org) is a website of resources for anyone interested in finding or working with community orchards and public fruit projects.