Community gardens are much more than a place to grow plants—they are places for education, relationships, cross-cultural connections, story-telling, exercise, and delicious fresh food.
With a continuously growing population, rapid urbanization, and high levels of industrialization, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to connect as a society and with the Earth. The natural world becomes farther and farther away as cities expand and land is cleared. Communities which were once close become distant as the busy work culture takes over.
In history, a deep connection with the land allowed humans to survive; we worked with nature rather than against it. We were connected as a society through community gatherings and celebrations. These ties have been largely lost in today’s world. Now more than ever, it is important that we begin rebuilding our relationship with nature and restrengthening our sense of community. One way that this is being done is through local community gardens.
Morgan Winburn, manager and gardener at Tempe Community Action Agency (TCAA), has been involved with community gardens like Clark Park and Escalante Community Gardens for three years, and she has loved every minute of it. She has come to understand that community gardens are not just a place to grow food, but also a place to build community.
“Most people think that the community garden is about plants and having a product. Those are actually a byproduct of community gardens—that is the happy benefit of it—but the comradery and the relationships… and getting back to who we are as humans… are the actual main focuses of a community garden.”
Spending time in community gardens also has benefits beyond building healthy and socially sustainable communities—they are also a place to rebuild our connection with nature.
“As we became a more industrialized nation and our farming communities became more rural…, a lot of our [gardening] traditions and information have been lost. There is a push to be bigger and better and more, but not necessarily healthy. Community gardens are a way to teach people how to do that within an urban setting… and making sure that what we are doing is healthy for the Earth.”
Clark Park and Escalante Community Gardens have made sustainable agriculture a part of their mission. With a growing movement of consumers pushing for organic fruits and vegetables that are grown with nature’s best interests in mind, Winburn acknowledges that the TCAA gardens take sustainability very seriously and always strive to teach the community about agroecology and healthier traditional farming practices.
One big concern with current agriculture practices is the use of agrochemicals like fertilizers and pesticides. At Clark Park and Escalante Community Gardens, Winburn explains that they do not need these external inputs; instead, they have learned how to read nature to understand where problems arise and how they can be addressed with natural solutions. One example of a common gardening problem is bugs, which are often called “pests” by farmers, thus the use of pesticides.
“Bugs are not bad; they are just a symptom,” says Winburn. “They give us clues as to what the plants and the soil need. All of those little things working together creates new knowledge that we share with each other.”
Instead of thinking of bugs as pests, Winburn thinks of bugs as an indicator of an underlying problem in the garden system. Perhaps the soil composition is unbalanced, or maybe there is a disruption in the food chain of the ecosystem. Regardless of the situation, a similar thinking can be applied to all challenges encountered in agriculture.
This way of thinking is not the norm in our current agricultural paradigm; most farmers immediately turn towards chemicals as the solution to any problem they may face. However, Winburn points out that there are better ways to learn how to grow our food.
“A lot of our knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from books, but it comes from interacting with nature and learning from each other,” explains Winburn. “Community gardens are a hub for the community to gather and to learn from each other…and that cooperation is absolutely needed to build [knowledge] around culture and food.”
For those that are interested in becoming part of the community garden scene, here are a few community gardens that are located throughout the Valley:
Clark Park Community Garden
Clark Park is a TCAA garden that was created in 2014 and has since grown to become a community gathering space for people to learn about the environment, sustainable gardening, and land stewardship. The garden’s goal is to provide people in food deserts with access to healthy food and to create an environment that brings the surrounding community together and creates strong community relationships. Clark Park has community gardening areas as well as 27 additional raised boxes that anyone can rent. You can join the gardening community at Clark Park on every 1st and 3rd Saturday of every month from 8am to 11am. Clark Park is also offering an evening event every Thursday at 6pm called Clark Park After Dark where the community gathers to talk about various aspects of gardening.
Escalante Community Garden
Escalante Community Garden is a TCAA garden that aims to increase the availability of fresh and healthy food through neighborhood-led communal gardening models. The garden offers opportunities to learn about sustainable gardening practices and how to cook healthy meals using produce grown in the gardens. The project fosters a growing community of volunteer gardeners who are assisting and learning about projects in composting, chicken farming, and water retention. The produce harvested from Escalante Community Garden goes toward creating emergency food boxes for Escalante’s food pantry. To get involved, attend a volunteer work day on every 2nd and 4th Saturday of every month from 8am to 11am. Additionally, child and parent classes are offered every Wednesday at 11am.
Agave farms is a large,15-acre garden found in the middle of Phoenix with a mission to assist in the sustainable transformation of the urban area. The land houses a community garden space, a plant nursery, and a farm. Agave Farms hosts a number of community gardens on its 15 acres of land including Project Roots, IRC New Roots Farm Program, Native Health Indigenous Wellness Garden, Brighter View Foundation, Native American Urban Ministry, and Urban Farming Education. There are an abundance of activities offered weekly to get involved at the farm, with opportunities to attend seasonal sales, volunteer events, lectures, and workshops. Horticulture, landscaping, agriculture, soil management, and the culinary arts are a few of the topics you can expect to learn about at Agave Farms.
Agritopia Farms is a USDA certified organic farm that grows a variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs to provide to local restaurants in the area. The farm provides 54 community garden plots which are rented annually, with each plot supporting up to three families. Participating in the community garden provides access to the plot, water, the community tool shed, and social gatherings. The community garden is open to the public to walk through and explore, providing the perfect opportunity to learn about seasonal crops and to interact with the gardeners. Agritopia Farms also hosts a Farm Night every second Wednesday of the month for people to interact, learn, and build community, all while enjoying delicious fresh food from the farm.
TigerMountain Foundation Community Gardens
Garden of Tomorrow and Spaces of Opportunity Garden are both part of TigerMountain Foundation in the Phoenix area. TigerMountain focuses on building community and empowering individuals from economically-disadvantaged areas with high incarceration and school drop-out rates through their Asset Based Community Development program. TigerMountain’s community gardens are places to build professional job skills and promote workforce development while revitalizing the surrounding land. Everyone is welcome to volunteer in the gardens and at farmers markets. Volunteers at TigerMountain will work in the gardens and help out with various projects like garden maintenance, irrigation, pruning, and harvesting.