Community gardens: Plan now for ministry in the spring


Looking for a program with the potential to bring new life to your congregation? Community gardens address food insecurity while building relationships in your neighborhood and providing members with volunteer opportunities close to home.

The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, pastor of South Gate United
Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, shares some words during the
dedication ceremony for a shed at a community garden.
While each community garden is unique to its location, a common theme is that gardeners choose what they grow, the food is nutritious and, in most growing seasons, plentiful.
A general definition of food security is the availability of plentiful, culturally appropriate, nutritious food of one’s own choosing, so community gardens are clearly responsive to the goal of food security.
While addressing local hunger is a compelling reason to host a community garden, the opportunity to interact with neighbors is equally rich for congregations. I remember the first season of the community garden at a small church I served in Omaha. Two homeless people joined that summer, and when I asked one of them how he had decided to come to worship he responded, “I was walking down the alley and someone hollered to ask if I could help them. I started helping whenever people were around, and they told me about the church. I figured if they were nice enough to let me help they’d be nice enough to let me come to church.”  
One of my other favorite stories comes from a UCC church. The pastor told me, with some distress, “We have a garden problem! We don’t have neighbors gardening with us any more!” I was alarmed, and asked him what had happened. His answer? “They all joined the church, so now they are members. I guess we just have to expand the garden to make room for more neighbors.”
Those who have been following recent conversations about best practices for volunteers will find in community gardens the opportunity to build lasting relationships in the church’s neighborhood, another strong benefit of community gardens. At South Gate UMC in Lincoln, we’ve chosen to adopt a plot at one of Lincoln’s oldest community gardens, just 10 blocks down the street from the church. In our second year, we now have a role helping coordinate volunteer days and communications between gardeners and the non-profit that manages the site. After two seasons, we have a much better understanding of the diversity of our neighborhood, and have met neighbors we had no idea were living in our midst until we found each other in the garden.
There are a number of organizations with excellent resources for beginning community gardeners. Closest to home is the Big Garden, which is celebrating its 10th year in ministry. Nationally, the American Community Garden Association hosts a comprehensive website that includes a resources page.
Fall is the time to begin conversations for community garden success; planning takes time and includes not just the obvious conversations about site selection and water, but the recruitment of community partners and conversations with congregation members and neighbors to determine who has which skills and resources to bring together. The above sites offer helpful resources, while the tips below are a list of some of the basics that are often overlooked in first-year gardens.

 Tips for Community Garden Success

  • Recruit at least one other community partner
  • Plan ahead to include neighborhood children
  • Set at least two standard drop-in weekly volunteer times
  • Insist on gloves and closed toe shoes for volunteers
  • Plan monthly weeding parties
  • Add flowering perennials to corners and/or sides
  • Create a message kiosk for both gardeners and passers-by
  • Put up a sign
  • Decide before the season starts how to measure the harvest
  • Plant tall things on the north side
  • Share recipes
  • July can be harsh – plan group activities to make things fun
  • Plan a clean-up party after the first frost
  • Review the garden season and take notes for next year
  • No: tiny tomatoes if only adults will pick them; melons growing in high visibility areas; small patches of sweet corn in the city
  • Yes: low-acid yellow tomatoes; heirloom vegetables; eggplant; compost; mulch; soil testing; water barrels
The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede is pastor of South Gate United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and founder of the Big Garden, operated by United Methodist Ministries in Omaha.

Celebrating the harvest

Editor’s note: the following was submitted by Sandy Sypherd, CLM and Mercy and Justice district coordinator for the Prairie Rivers District.
Gardeners gathered together in the fellowship hall of Grace UMC in Hastings, Nebraska, Aug. 28, to enjoy a delicious meal using the produce from our community garden. Each gardener brought a favorite dish to share. “Celebrating the Harvest” has been an annual tradition for our gardeners and each year we vary the fellowship gathering.

This year before we began to eat, there were three demonstrations showing how to make unique dishes. One gardener used her new spiralizer and three young Latina girls had fun helping her. She spirialized yellow squash with pesto and spirialized zucchini squash with raw tomato sauce as well as India spiced green bean pickles and pickled okra.

Another gardener from El Salvador made two types of pupusas, one of their most notable dishes, with cheese and spinach and cheese and beans. It was fun to watch her expert hands form the “masa,” (the dough) into a circular form. She then formed a small bowl with the dough, added the filling, enclosed it and patted it again. The masa dough is the base for tortillas. The pupusas were then put on a skillet or “comal” and toasted. She prepared a red salsa to be eaten with the pupusas.

The third gardener made a pork, cabbage and onion salad with a wok. He added a variety of seasonings. Using the wok is a technique that originated in China and in recent centuries has spread into other parts of Asia and the West.

Other scrumptious dishes included cucumber pasta salad, a beet salad, green beans with onion and ham, a tomato and bread salad, and several lettuce, spinach and cabbage salads. An angel food cake and chocolate brownies were served for dessert in honor of one of our garden team member’s birthday.

Gardeners were encouraged to sit with a family from another culture and engage in conversations guided by a list of topics and questions placed on each table. It was great to hear the laughter as people interacted and visited. My ESL (English as a Second Language) students had a wonderful opportunity to put their English into action!

Grace garden is diverse with gardeners from a wide range of socio-economic and educational backgrounds. There are 21 people of color; 19 Latinos and a couple from India. Our garden is an inclusive place where the barriers color and gender disappear. People work together and help one another. We have people from both United Methodist churches in Hastings, from the community at large and from the Hispanic/Latino community.

In addition to the 28 plots we have, there are several common areas where strawberries, blackberries, pumpkins, herbs and squash are grown. Also a fall garden has been started in one of our plots. Any gardener may take the produce from the common areas when it is ripe.

The produce from the garden goes to our gardeners and to the produce table at the church. Donated money from the produce table goes to the Zone, an after school program, and some of it comes back to our garden account. If any produce remains on Sundays, it is taken to Crossroads, a homeless shelter in town.

It has been fun to see families who are gardening for the first time go to the garden after my ESL classes and the children pick carrots, radishes and tomatoes, wash them at the sink we have in the garden and immediately eat them. It is great to see them enjoying the food right from the garden.

We have had an infestation of baby rabbits this season in spite of the fence and chicken wire around our garden. It has been interesting to come to the garden and see adults and children running around, chasing the rabbits, catching them and putting them outside of our fence. At one point we had eight baby rabbits. One of our gardeners checked out his green bean crop and was so proud of it. He planned to pick them the next day but when he went out to his plot the rabbits had eaten every single bean. He has now replanted and has put wire around the new crop.

We are so grateful to The Big Garden in Omaha for giving us the grant money to have this fantastic garden. Without their help, this garden would not exist. Grace garden – a Big Garden – strives to create opportunities for cross cultural interaction, to help families who are struggling in this economy and to promote healthy lifestyles.

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