By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Many cities struggle to maintain one community garden. The small city of Coppell has two, and they’re thriving.

The “Helping Hands” garden stands astride City Hall, bisected by a walkway to another city building and trimmed with native plants that rustle in the wind, bursting with purple, yellow and fuschia flowers that lure butterflies and bees. Sun rays glint off shiny green peppers and cherry tomatoes, the tail end of the summer harvest.

Coppell Garden, on city grounds

The “Helping Hands” garden occupies a prominent place near city buildings and a school.

A mile away, sandwiched between a real estate office and a US Post Office, the other garden occupies a lot on the thoroughfare Denton Tap Road. Dubbed “Ground Delivery” in honor of the USPS, it features a promenade to a large arbor where residents gather for lessons on making compost and growing leafy greens.

Both gardens are neatly arranged into rows of 4 x 28 or 4 x 18 foot beds divided by wood chip paths. They are replete with the supply sheds, water catchments and compost piles that feed the soil and plants. Benches, information kiosks, arbors and a lattice wall climbing with morning glories beckon visitors, and stand in testament to the Eagle Scouts who gifted the garden with many of the structures.

The infrastructure is impressive.

But it’s not what makes the project, says Amanda Vanhoozier, the environmental-teacher-turned-community organizer who founded the gardens in 1998 with a small group of interested residents.

Seated at a gazebo at Helping Hands on a sunny fall day, Vanhoozier has agreed to be quizzed about how and why the Coppell gardens have become so robust, winning awards and standing as a model for others. I think we might talk about compost, soil amendments and irrigation techniques. But Vanhoozier waves dismissively at the surrounding lush vegetation. The plants, she says, will grow. That part, well, just happens, once the human element is firmly engaged.

Coppell Garden, Zinnias and path

Zinnias border a path at “Ground Delivery.”

“I’ve always said we’re not growing plants, we’re growing people,” she says.

“What we want to do is create an environment for people to come together. There’s positive energy. We’ll grow the plants (another little wave), but we want to make sure that everyone’s working together, collaborating. And so many people in Coppell have a lot of assets. Not money assets, but abilities.”

It’s all those diverse human talents, connections and ideas that have made the Coppell Community Gardens among the most successful in Texas, and a beacon to other gardens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

In their 15 years of existence, Coppell’s all-organic gardens have grown to encompass about 100 active plots, planted virtually year round. Over that time, garden organizers and leaders have donated 150,000 pounds of produce and mentored at least 200 other community garden groups that have contacted them, mostly from the North Texas area.

The Coppell gardeners have shared their best practices and the chief lesson they’ve learned, which is that the secret to community gardens lies in the first word, not the second.

Garden books provide directions on when to seed and how to cook the compost. But the best way to organize a community garden is to listen to the “community” and take inspiration from those who show up for the meetings and then return on Saturdays or after work to hoe, mulch, compost, plant and harvest.

“Then it becomes everyone’s garden,” says Vanhoozier, who’s now supervisor of community programs for the Dallas suburb of about 40,000.

Seed your community garden with friendly city officials

It’s tempting to say that the time was ripe for a community garden when Coppell decided to move forward in the late 1990s. But it wasn’t.

Environmentalism always had its proponents, and the local food movement was alive in Austin. Not so much in North Texas.

“In the Northeast or Northwest, community gardens had been around for 30 or 40 years, but in the Dallas area it just didn’t happen, or they were really shaggy and old, because they were left over from another era,” said Vanhoozier.

What did help propel Coppell was a friendly reception at City Hall. A city councilman had visited Ms. Vanhoozier’s school garden and saw how it served as a teaching lab for children. He tipped off the city manager, who became an advocate.

“When you had the city manager saying he wanted a community garden, it opened all the doors,” she said. “And look, we’re right here next to City Hall.” (Note to aspiring community gardeners: Don’t hide the garden. Place it at the center of the community.)

The “donation piece” also was critical, Vanhoozier says. Organizers realized that Coppell, a suburb known for great schools and strong incomes, wasn’t in need of groceries. But people in such communities can lack meaningful ways to give back. Leaders decided the garden would be a donation garden.

Oddly, finding a food pantry that wanted fresh produce was not easy. Some didn’t want the fuss of not knowing what might be delivered from week to week and some fretted about the cleanliness of the food.

The food manager at Metrocrest Social Services in nearby Carrollton wasn’t worried.  She was very excited, and indeed, she loved the smell of fresh basil, Vanhoozier recalls.

The food pantry, like the garden, was just a little ahead of its time. Today, food groups recognize that fresh produce addresses a host of ills, providing sustenance in urban “food deserts” and inviting clients to cook whole foods that are healthier than the high-fat, salty packaged goods that weigh down the American diet.

Empower and trust the gardeners (and not just because they have shears)

Gardeners know that gardens evolve organically. The beds are plotted out initially, but then the spinach asserts itself and the beans declare a favorite corner. The squash grows robustly in the shade of the corn.

Community gardens should evolve organically too, says Vanhoozier, who also oversees the popular Coppell Farmer’s Market, which started in 2003.

She counsels groups and cities that contact her to stay away from the “build it and they will come approach” and instead invite the community to make the decisions from the beginning.

In Coppell, the community has taken firm ownership of the garden, she believes, because the early leaders decided against having a rigid hierarchy.

“It’s an open environment. It’s very inclusive. It generates good energy, works with the people and makes things happen,” she explains. For example, the garden doesn’t have a set quota for donations. It’s understood that’s the primary goal of the garden, but those putting in the labor are free to harvest some for themselves. The main harvest occurs on Saturdays, when volunteers pick all finished fruit and vegetables for immediate delivery to the food pantry.

Coppell Garden, Cindy Geppert trims flowers

Cindy Geppert trims flowers in the native flower demonstration garden she started.

Garden leaders are called “leaders” and all work together to shepherd the program. When a leader steps down, he or she often maintains a special role that’s become a personal passion. This flexibility has built a strong cadre of people who tend the garden.

Cindy Geppert first connected with the garden when she brought her middle-school-aged kids to volunteer 12 years ago. They later moved on, but she stayed, serving as a garden leader and later assuming ongoing responsibility for an herb garden as well as native flower beds that she installed. All the flowers are labeled so people can learn about them, explained Geppert as she “dead-headed” some waist-high Texas sage with hand clippers.

“You just take a lot of pride in what you’re doing, in donating the produce to the pantry and the people you’re helping. This is a service I can give back at. I can provide physical labor and I can teach others,” she said.

Accept, reflect and be the community – this is how your garden grows

In 15 years, the Coppell Community Garden(s) has benefited from volunteers in their 80s, and in kindergarten. It has hosted beginning gardeners, master gardeners, gardeners from other cultures, chefs, church and civic groups.

Elementary school children dutifully tend to a plot that’s currently overflowing with sweet potato vines, marching across a lawn from nearby Town Center Elementary to “Helping Hands”.

Kids also walk from the high school for environmental lessons. And dozens of teens over the years have taken up tools on Saturday mornings. Yes, Saturday mornings. Teens.  Words that you don’t often see in the same sentence.

Gardens are natural social equalizers, and Coppell’s strives for inclusiveness through its member-based leadership, welcoming spirit and in the case of teens, by not obsessing on rules, says Vanhoozier.

Juanita Miles checks her bed at the Helping Hands garden just outside her office.

Juanita Miles checks her bed at the Helping Hands garden just outside her office.

“The best way to connect with the youth is to make it unstructured. So Saturday mornings the youth can come to the gardens and work. There’s no registration. So if they get up and feel like they could go to the garden and want to grab a friend, they don’t have to call ahead. They don’t have to be signed up. If you show up, we’re working. We’re working every Saturday, ‘come on down’,” she says with a wave and a smile.

The teenagers, ages 13 to 18, can earn service hours counted for credit at school clubs. But they’re really getting so much more.

“They turn compost, they turn mulch, they harvest. They look at chameleons. They see hummingbirds. They learn how to use a shovel. And this is really good for the teens in Coppell to have a place they can go and meet friends and they’re on a different level here,” Vanhoozier says. “You may never ever talk to each other when you’re in school, but you’re in the garden, you’re working together and having a conversation, which is a miracle, because you have all different kinds of kids here.”

Ditto, the adults. In the garden, status symbols, pretensions and socio-economic divisions fall away.

Juanita Miles, a senior administrative technician with Coppell Planning and Zoning has witnessed that phenomenon. She and a co-worker signed up for a plot and share the work. It’s the first garden she’s had since junior high school, but she just felt drawn to participate.

“The community garden is a good way for people to bond and converse and get to know each other, because everybody’s looking at what they’re doing . . . Everybody’s comparing what they’re growing. It makes you a little mellow,” Miles said, chuckling. “You’ll go look at the plants and talk to them. Everybody gets all excited. My workmates will come and help cut the okra.”

Helping Hands beds, with herbs in the foreground, okra and other vegetables in the plots.

Helping Hands beds, with herbs in the foreground, okra, peppers and more still ripening in September.

Vanhoozier saw just how deeply knitted the garden’s social fabric was during the recent economic crash.

“I don’t know how many times I was out turning compost and I was with a group of people and several of them were out of work and that was during the time when a lot of people were laid off and they’d lost their jobs,” she recalled.

“They would come to the garden because it was a place of rest and it was re-energizing, and they’d be talking to each other and it almost became a network of ‘who do you know?’ and ‘where are you looking for a job?’. I am sure that jobs got connected here at the community garden and I think that was an important time for the community to draw together and have a place that they could come and talk with others,” she said.

She also heard from other communities. In 2009 and 2010, about 130 organizations contacted her, wanting details about the garden and advice for building one of their own. The local food movement was gaining steam, but there also was an undercurrent of need that had nothing to do with food.

“Communities were drawing together,” she says, nodding, dare we say, sagely.

Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network