When most Americans think of urban gardens, they picture littered city lots cleaned up by neighborhood residents in order to have places to grow vegetables and flowers.
That image still exists, but these days, urban gardens can be found in a number of places, including public parks, corners of residential streets and cemeteries, behind churches, food banks and even corporations, according to Bill Dawson, who heads the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio's, Growing to Green program (http://www.FPconservatory.org).
"They're a community resource that goes back to the victory gardens of World War II," he says. "In the 1970s, there were communes into organic gardening, and in the '90s, many people gardened because they were concerned about the environment. Today gardening is popular because of the economy, plus people want to know what's in their food. There is also strong interest in eating locally produced food." Dawson adds that there were an estimated 7 million new vegetable gardeners in the country in 2009.
A community garden is essential to a thriving neighborhood, says Tarsha M. Gary, a Houston chef who owns Crave Gourmet Bakery and Catered Caf?. She and a partner also run Ecotone -- short for ecological atonement model -- a program that provides an educational model for setting up and running an urban garden.
"People in urban neighborhoods are usually dependent upon their corner stores, many of which are primarily liquor stores, for their food. They often lack access to produce and other healthy and nutritious foods," Gary says. "A community garden helps change this and empowers them to have more control over the quality of what they eat."
Many urban garden projects offer classes for those interested in participating. The Ecotone program shows people in Houston how gardening can be sustainable in a small space and teaches them many things before the first seed is planted, including soil remediation and composting.
Columbus' Greening to Grow program conducts classes throughout the year. There are now 150 community gardens in Columbus. The city government makes empty lots available for a $1 yearly rental. There are also grants available for community gardens in Columbus.
"The Scotts Company provides $25,000 per year for the Columbus Foundation to award for startup gardens," Dawson says. There are also yearly awards that recognize up to five outstanding urban gardens. "They receive cash prizes that are put back into the garden and can be used for seeds, plants and other things."
The sense of community and organization that an urban garden brings to participants is important. Dawson and Gary point out that though they provide advice and education and help the neighbors organize their gardens, it is ultimately up to the communities to set up their own rules and run themselves. "We've become a catalyst for going green and sustainability. We provide the knowledge that enables the community to take ownership," Gary says.
Most urban gardens positively impact their communities in other ways besides the food they produce.
"Neighbors see that a littered lot has been cleaned up and turned into a neat thriving garden that brings some pride into the area. Next thing you know, they are painting their houses or fixing their fences, and the whole neighborhood begins to look nicer," Gary says.
Dawson agrees that an urban garden brings people together. "The garden can become a good community resource with many side benefits. It can make a neighborhood safer and provides an activity that people of all ages can participate in," he says. "I expect people to pass on what they have learned. If you grow great tomatoes, teach others how to do it."
"The garden and the food it produces become the soul of the community. It is an experience that unifies people of all ages," Gary says. "You see grandparents working alongside their children and grandchildren."
Urban gardens encourage entrepreneurship. Individuals can sell the vegetables or flowers produced on their plots or the products they have made, such as salsa or potato salad, at farmers markets.
The number of organizations participating in urban gardens is growing steadily. According to Dawson, several Columbus corporations have community gardens in which employees grow food that is donated to local food banks, which also are getting into the act. The Mid-Ohio Foodbank has a garden on its property and distributes produce grown on-site.
"Fresh produce is one of the most difficult things for food banks to get," says Dawson, noting that most donations are boxed or canned food. He encourages urban gardeners to include a row of produce that can be donated to a food bank. "It's the tip of the iceberg, but it can make a difference," he says.