Creative use of space is becoming an integral part of urban living. What better way to use land than to grow fresh fruits and vegetables? Community gardens (CGs) are doing just that and much more to benefit communities.
What Is a CG?
Simply put, a CG is a plot of land, usually operated by the city, where individuals (known as gardeners) can rent a space to grow their own plants. Gardeners pay an initial, sometimes refundable, deposit, and a monthly fee for use.
CGs can be located in parks, in between houses, or in other creative areas, like the unused space beneath power lines. Plot size varies greatly depending on location and demand; for example, some plots in Torrance, California, are 20′ X 20′, while spaces in Downtown Los Angeles can be as small as 1′ X 4′!
How Do CGs Operate?
Each CG operates differently, meaning each has its own set of rules and etiquette. Most CGs allow only “kitchen vegetables” such as zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes. Fruit trees, which can be messy and spread wide roots, generally are allowed only if they are small in size and kept in clay pots. Many CGs outline what type of farming practices are acceptable, such as fertilization and pesticide use.
Although CGs are contracted only to provide water, many of them have community tools or equipment that stay on the property. Torrance Garden Manager RJ Mallardi says sometimes people bring plants or potted trees from home to rehabilitate them when they aren’t thriving. After a few weeks of living in the garden, the rehabilitated plant goes home healthier.
Mallardi explains that the CG should be a place of open communication. Keeping the garden manager, neighbors, and fellow gardeners in the know about your plot can help you keep your garden healthy during long absences or high yields.
How Do CGs Benefit the Community?
The benefits to CGs seem endless for both individuals and entire communities. Joyce Chan, who oversees the Community Garden Program in Torrance, California, explains that people find spiritual, psychological, and emotional benefits. Some people are very thankful for the opportunity to grow vegetables to feed their families or underserved populations, she says.
The community also benefits because previously unused or rugged areas can be developed into learning environments that promote health and wellness. One study in Maryland found that the creation of community gardens could improve urban environments, particularly in revitalizing areas that had previously been degrading.
There are physical benefits to CGs as well. Maintaining a garden requires a decent amount of exercise. And one study found that individuals who participated in CGs were more than two times more likely to meet the national dietary recommendations for fruits and vegetables than nongardeners. Individuals who participated in CGs consumed fruits and vegetables 5.7 times per day, while nongardeners consumed them only 3.9 times per day. So not only do you get your exercise, but you’re more likely to eat the veggies you grow!
Other populations may benefit from CGs for their educational value. Teaching children where food comes from and how they can grow it are important lessons that can’t be taught from a textbook. Other educational opportunities exist, too. Chan reveals that one of the CGs in downtown Los Angeles offered gardening lessons to the homeless so they could learn to grow food.
How Can I Get Involved?
Hop online and search your city’s website for community gardens. Spread the word about CGs by sharing information on social media, or find ways to participate, like volunteering time or donating supplies to a nearby CG.
You can also support your local CG by making sure your city councilpersons understand the positive impact it has on your community. Don’t have one in your town? Talk to your city personnel and ask what steps are needed to start one. As an RD, your words have particular weight as a public health advocate. There is no size limitation, and it can be started with only a few people interested.
With so many benefits, what are you waiting for? Dig into a CG today!
— Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, is an award-winning author and blogger who serves as nutrition editor for Today’s Dietitian magazine. Sharon is a plant-based and sustainable foods expert based in Los Angeles.
— Jill Vrastil, MS, RD, is a dietitian based in Redondo Beach, California.