For me, community gardens belong under the heading of “urban foraging.” A forager’s curiosity and knowledge are equally useful when walking through a community garden space, taking note of what other gardeners are growing and harvesting. The shared experience and joy that come from working these beds is an important part of what transforms them into beautiful garden plots.
During World War II, the government encouraged families to plant victory gardens, or war gardens, to increase food production and reduce pressure on the public food supply. At the time, a vast majority of Americans made their living in agriculture and lived in rural landscapes, where they grew their own food. Over the last 20 years, the number of community gardens countrywide has grown again, in conjunction with the farm-to-table movement.
My father kept a garden on our one-acre parcel in rural West Linn, Oregon during the 1960s. Visible from our house, the garden was filled with tall stalks of sweet corn, juicy Oregon strawberries bursting with sugar, even wine grapes. Family lore has it that my dad won a blue ribbon for his green beans one year at the city fair, a distinction that has remained of the utmost importance in my mind. Growing and cooking food, even experiments with wine making were part of my childhood experience, long before I began working in the family restaurant.
Since living in the neighborhood, I have observed the members of the Mt. Tabor Community Garden, one of 52 such gardens in the city of Portland. Neighbors and members are growing food for consumption, but more importantly, they are establishing a connection to community. Even if the scale on which we can produce food in these gardens is smaller then what we purchase from local stores and farmers markets, there is great satisfaction in the act of coming together to grow.
Working in 120-square foot plots, urban farmers teach one another about compost and amendments, cross-pollination and seed saving, and production values. When they grow more food than they can eat, the members donate the abundance to food shelters, gleaners and those without direct access to garden programs. If a fellow gardener cannot tend his/her plot for any reason, the other members step in to weed, water, harvest and, eventually, turn the soil for winter.
Unlocking the garden gate, entering a landscape dotted with plots of sunflowers reaching skyward, abundant vegetables and herbs, maybe an errant melon or two, crawling out of its designated growing space, awakens the curious forager in me. How did each gardener decide what and how much to plant? Did they research the compatibility of the plants they would grow, think about whether their kids would eat certain vegetables, and if the yield from that 120 square feet would be enough? Too much? And it awakens the neighbor in me: Will fellow gardeners share recipes or meals? Will the act of growing and toiling together in the garden beds naturally evolve into neighbors working together in the kitchen?
Public kitchen facilities for canning and jarring can still be found scattered around the rural areas of the country, where families rent them to preserve summer’s bounty efficiently. In my family, my wife and I apply our preserving skills to opposite ends of the spectrum: I can pickles and tomatoes, while Joy is the jam master. Everything is preserved in our home kitchen, as Oregon no longer has public preservation kitchens.
I hope that community gardens are here to stay. They have the power to connect communities. They remind us that our food comes from the ground. And they enhance our urban landscapes, both in the full bloom of spring and summer, and in late fall and winter, when they lay dormant and the activity of restoration and regeneration is taking place below the surface.