By Shermakaye Bass
and Barbara Kessler

There’s no doubt that community gardens, a tradition that first surfaced in the United States in the early 1900’s, are at the grassroots of today’s urban “buy local/grow local” movfremont-community-garden-sacramento.jpgement. But today, in places as diverse as New York City and Madison, Wisc., community gardens are also a socio-cultural equalizer, bringing together plot farmers from all backgrounds and ethnicities.

In Madison’s historic Eagle Heights Community Garden (circa 1962) near the University of Wisconsin, if all gardeners were present on a busy spring weekend, you could hear up to 60 different languages and encounter gardening techniques from around the world. Stop by Boulder’s Growing Gardens near the Iris Gardens, where more than 1,000 gardeners are involved, and you’re liable to hear Hmong mingled with English, Spanish and various other languages. And there’s no point in trying to estimate how many float on the breezes above New York City’s 1000+ community gardens.

Across the United States, community gardens are attracting people accustomed to providing some of their own sustenance; retirees who finally have time for gardening, church members providing for the low-income and young urbanites seeking a closer connection to their food. Many gardens have waiting lists, as people seek a way to reconnect with what they eat.

“People want to grow their own organic food and know where it comes from,” says Bill Maynard, vice president of the American Community Gardening Association and the coordinator of Sacramento’s five city-owned community gardens.

What’s more, they enjoy the social aspect of gardening alongside others who might come from different backgrounds, but share this common interest. “They don’t know each other, but now they’re friends,” says Maynard.

“We have legislative aides who come down from the Capitol and water (their plot) in their suits. We have retired people. We have families. And we have ADA accessible beds, raised beds” set aside for people with disabilities, and people from Asian cultures with the know-how to farm acres, he said. All turn up at the city’s gardens, particularly the city’s oldest and recently renovated Fremont Community Garden in the urban center, which is being transformed into a neatly arrayed city-operated garden and gathering spot.

There is no perfect way to gauge the current upswing in community gardening in the United States because the majority of gardens are not officially registered with the ACGA. It’s, shall we say, an organic movement? But organizers in several locales report robust participation. Madison’s 31 community gardens have grown by about 50 percent in the past five years, adding more than 500 participants, according to the Madison area’s Community Action Coalition that helps low-income residents with their plots. Sacramento reports waiting lists for its community gardens; Maynard says he could easily fill two new gardens in design phase.