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.
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.