Community Gardening with Kids


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On any given weekend, Triangle families are rolling up their sleeves and playing in the dirt. It's all for a good reason. They're part of a growing trend of community gardeners. In a community garden, a group of people tends a single piece of shared land. They grow flowers or produce, working together from seed to harvest. And they're growing more than just produce. Community gardens offer families in urban and suburban areas a sense of community and accomplishment. For children, especially, it's an unbeatable experience.

"Kids get so excited, because they love being outdoors," says Laura Aiken, director of Advocates for Health in Action in Raleigh, an organization that helps Wake County citizens understand the value of consuming locally grown food. "And they love that they're doing something alongside their parents, too."

For a lot of kids, there's a disconnect between the produce they pick out of the bins at the grocery store and where it actually originated. When they start gardening, they watch that food grow from seedlings. And that leads to another benefit, Aiken says. "Schools with community gardens have found that kids are more likely to eat something if they grew it themselves, so they can potentially have better nutrition habits in the long run."

What's more, kids get to work alongside people of other ages, instead of the peer groups they're used to every day in school. They see firsthand what it's like to work together for a common good. "It's really a multi-generational effort," says Rosetta Radtke, senior planner for Durham's Parks and Recreation Department. Radtke leads a program that helps residents find park space for community gardens. "Everyone is there and involved, putting their hands in the earth," she says.

Anyone can join together to form a garden, such as neighborhoods, religious groups, schools, Scout troops or even unrelated, local people connecting on the Internet. If you have land, you can have a garden.

How community gardening works

There's no hard-and-fast template for operating a community garden. "Every single community garden is a little different," Aiken says. "There's not really one set model." The group works out the details together - who can join, work schedules, any costs and so on.

The general idea is this: A common plot of land is located and the landowner grants access and permission. (This can be with a legal document and insurance or a handshake, depending on the circumstances.) The group then works the land with an agreed-upon schedule. Any harvest that is available when you're working is yours to take.

But won't someone end up with six bushels of veggies, while another takes home three trampled green beans? "I've been involved in this for years, and I've never heard that anyone's been left empty-handed," Aikens says. "The only problem I've heard of is that there's more than can be consumed."

That's because many community gardeners have gotten help from master gardeners, and their harvest is far more than the normal backyard garden would produce. There's often so much to go around that many gardens donate to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Durham (www.foodshuttle.org).

And what about nefarious tomato-stealers who break into the garden? "Different gardens have their philosophy about strangers stealing from their garden," Aikens says. "Some gardens are locked, so you can't get in at times it's not open. But others say, 'If someone in the community feels they need the food, they can have it.'"

Think before you grow

So you have a group together, and everyone's bouncing around, ready to grab a shovel and start breaking ground. But don't go leaping in without giving it careful thought, Aikens warns. Do you really want to do this?

"We're in North Carolina," she says. "A community garden often sounds like a fantastic idea in April or May. But then along comes July and August, and it's hot and it's dry. That garden needs to be watered and weeded. Be sure everyone's really committed to the actual work. We have a lot of 'weed gardens' around!"

And about that water. That's the first thing to really consider when you pick your location: Is there access to water? And if not, how are you going to get it in there? Give it some thought before planting that first seed.

Next, determine the resources. Will you charge each family a fee that will go toward tools and seeds?

Figure out how you'll handle the labor force. You can have scheduled workdays - like every Tuesday evening and Saturday morning, for example - when everyone's invited to help. Or you can work out a rotating schedule where each family has a specific day to work the garden.

No land? No problem

If you can't find a plot of land, try Durham Parks and Recreation. "We've got a gardens and parks program," Radtke explains. "People can call me and suggest part of a park for a community garden. We'll take a look at it, and if it can work, we'll give them a simple permit to start a garden there."

Think outside the box. There's a community garden at the Whole Foods in Cary, right in the parking lot, for example. Once you start looking around, you might be surprised at the little snippets of unused land that could benefit from a community's TLC.  n

Kathleen M. Reilly is a Triangle-area mom and writer. She spends Saturday mornings with her hands in the dirt, wondering how the kids can find the berries in their backyard strawberry patch but somehow miss the weeds.

YOUNG GARDENERS

So, you have the little trowels and froggy boots, and your child's ready to start gardening. Here are some tips to get (and keep!) kids interested in gardening:

* Make a kid section. Propose to the gardeners that a special area is put aside just for kids. Let the kids pick what they want to grow, or design a "fun" garden - like planting colorful flowers in the shape of a face or letters.

* Make it quick. Kids aren't known for their patience. Give them things to plant that grow or bloom quickly - like morning glories, cucumbers or summer squash. They'll see the results and it'll keep them interested.

* Add elements. While you're waiting for plants to grow, build something to put in the garden. Try making a simple scarecrow, a little water garden or a toad house.

* Have fun. Plant mammoth sunflowers in a circle, leaving a gap for an opening. When they're grown (10 feet tall!), it's a wonderful secret hideaway for kids.

* Bug out. Plant butterfly bushes to attract those insects. Or get up close to the garden residents with your child - lace wings, ladybugs, earthworms - and talk about how they help the garden, too.

GET TWEENS AND TEENS IN THE GARDEN

While the 9-and-up crowd might still get a kick out of the sunflower garden, chances are they'll be "too cool" to admit it. But you still want to get them involved. Here's how to get older kids interested in gardening:

* Do the pizza thing. Have kids grow a pizza garden (basil, oregano, tomatoes, onions, etc.). After harvest, let them host a pizza-and-movie party for their friends.

* Go extreme. Suggest growing things like the Venus flytrap (which might need to be in containers), cacti, pink potatoes or edible flowers.

* Let them take charge. Provide tips on how to plan and execute a garden, and then step back and let them take the lead.

* Make a meal. Let them plan and make an entire meal for the family from what they harvest from their garden.

* Encourage new ideas. Durham Parks and Recreation has a monthly program where teens can learn how to grow different plants.

* Make a trade. Offer a fun family outing, like the movies or an afternoon doing a favorite hobby, in exchange for a morning pulling weeds.

RESOURCES TO HELP YOU GET STARTED

Is your green thumb itching to get started? Here are some resources to help you:

* Advocates for Health in Action website has a list of community gardens around the area. If you don't have tools, AHA is sponsoring a tool drive this spring - used garden tools can be dropped off, and than be donated to area community gardens. www.advocatesforhealthinaction.org/resources/localfoods.

* N.C. State University has a list of community gardens around the state, along with events and a community partner program. http://nccommunitygarden.ncsu.edu.

* Contact Rosetta Radtke at Durham Parks and Recreation to suggest park space for a garden. 919-560-4355.

* Have a purple thumb? Don't be afraid to ask for help getting started. The N.C. Cooperative Extension has master gardeners who can meet with your group to give you some tips. www.ces.ncsu.edu.

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