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Grow your own green stuff
When dollars donít buy enough food,
older people are finding they can cultivate it themselves
By Richard M. Detwiler, Modern Maturity, April - May 1976, pp. 54 - 55

As inflation hikes the cost of food, as consumers look for new and different ways to cope, a new kind of public bounty may be just around the corner -- or just around the block!

A growing phenomenon in America is the community vegetable garden. This spring, more than ever, community gardens will be sprouting all over the nationís landscape on church grounds, vacant lots, city park property, unused company land, school and university grounds. The neatly tended vegetable plot is becoming as much a fixture of the inner city as it is of the suburbs and rural areas.

The primary reason for having a vegetable garden, a recent Gallup poll showed, is economic:

People want to save money on their grocery bills. The potential savings are dramatic. As President Ford pointed out when he proposed gardens as a way the consumer could fight inflation, $10 worth of vegetable seeds can produce $290 worth of fresh vegetables.

So a modest vegetable plot, it seems, may be one of the better investments around these days. For older people, who may have more leisure time than most, the possibilities are especially attractive. The Gallup poll, for example, showed that 46 per cent of the people who had vegetable gardens in 1974 were 50 years of age or older. It also showed that gardeners 50 and older did more of the work themselves than those in the younger age groups.

There is one catch -- and itís a special problem for older people. Where do you get the land~ Where does the aspiring gardener find the space to plant some vegetables? What about the apartment dweller, the inner city resident, the homeowner with to little backyard or too little sun

Whatís the solution to this?

Community gardening is part of it. According to Gardens for All, Inc., a nonprofit group devoted to the advancement am improvement of community gardening in America, community gardening is gardening by individuals on land they do not own The ground is borrowed, begged leased, or otherwise procured from somebody who does own land.

Getting the land to garden is a key objective of todayís community gardener. The case of Mrs. Kitty Ham of Vancouver, Wash., illustrates how well an enterprising program can work. Several years ago, she started a modest gardening program for elderly citizens on her own property. The garden grew and grew and so did the number of old gardeners. Soon they had to scrounge more land, which they found at a nearby school conveniently located on a bus line.

Kitty Hamís community gardeners -- they call themselves the "Senior Citizen Sharecroppers" became quite famous in the area and were well covered by local television and the newspapers. Recently, the cityís parks and recreation department took over the project; Kitty Hamís small community garden has grown to a citywide enterprise.

As often happens, Kitty hamís gardeners were originally motivated mainly by economics but soon discovered exciting additional dimensions to their work.

"Itís not only the food and the savings that make this successful," she says. "Itís the older people feeling better, being able to get out in the fresh air; and itís the satisfaction of being able to give away some of the bounty."

The restorative properties of gardening have long been recognized. As early as 1798, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and pioneer in mental health, recommended gardening as therapy for mental patients.

The fun of it -- according to the Gallup poll, the sheer joy of gardening -- is the second strongest motive for the beginning gardener.

Not far behind is the superior flavor and nutritional value of homegrown vegetables. Growing your own vegetables, picking them ripe and sun-warmed from stalk or vine, introduces a fresh dimension to home cooking. The sturdier commercial produce, developed to withstand mass harvesting and knocking around in the long distribution process, usually picked before ripening, definitely lacks the subtlety and delicacy of the homegrown varieties.

For the would-be community gardener, there are many options to look into.

Churches and religious groups are playing a leading role in the movement. Some churches encourage vegetable gardening right on church property. Others, lacking sufficient land, lease it elsewhere and Sponsor a gardening project for parishioners and neighbors.

In Burlington, Vt., for example, Father Frank Prive started an exceptional ecumenical gardening project, with the produce going to needy older people. He and his parishioners from St. Josephís Catholic Church grow vegetables on the property of St. Paulís Episcopal Church. Many older citizens in the neighborhood take turns with the cultivating chores as well as sharing in the bounty.

In Fort Wayne, Md., the Rev. James E. Miller of the Crescent Avenue Church started a community garden for 500 families of the church and the neighborhood. Surplus from the gardens went to older people and the needy of the congregation.

And students at St. Edwardís High School of Religion in Newark, Calif., started a community garden expressly for the purpose of providing produce for the parishís older people.

Commercial enterprises also are taking the lead in making unused land available for community gardening. Retirees as well as employees are the chief beneficiaries, though nearby residents in plant and headquarters communities are often permitted to join the fun.

Some gardens are started as profit-making ventures by nurseries or farmers. These work in various ways. Most of the time, the proprietor will prepare the soil plowing, tilling, fertilizing, even seeding sometimes. Then, after about 90 per cent of the work is done, he rents out plots at a modest charge to all corners. The charge may run $10, $15, $20, maybe more; but as a rule, itís nominal compared to the potential savings, and the result is a good deal for the gardener.

More and more municipal governments and city agencies are developing programs for community gardening in metropolitan and inner city areas.

Both Baltimore and Syracuse (N.Y.), for example, have developed Adopt-a-Lot programs. When a citizen group decides to adopt a lot and start a garden project, it chooses land from a "list of lonely lots." Then the city, with help from the citizen action group, cleans up the messy lot, prepares the site, and the citizens take over.

In New York City, the public housing authority encourages community gardening to promote good relations among the tenants. The city provides money for tools and seed to community garden groups. One notable garden, Ruppert Greening, flourishes on the site of an abandoned brewery.

Among the nationís oldest ongoing community gardens is one in Bostonís Fenway district. Itís been active 1942, when the Victory Gardens of World War II were flourishing. Today, some 315 gardeners representing 15 different nationalities are involved.

How do you get into a community garden project?

Check first with your church, which may have something going or know of something. Next, try your townís parks and recreation department, which generally has the responsibility for such projects sponsored by the city.

The county agent or cooperative extension service would be another good bet. Either would know of projects in the area, and they may even be involved themselves. Large local businesses (try the public relations department for information) might be helpful, as might nearby colleges or universities. A local garden supply store or nursery would be another logical source of information.

If all else fails -- if you canít find a convenient project -- try starting your own community garden. For more information, write Gardens for All, inc., P.O. Box 371, Shelborne, Vt. 05482. Gardens for All can tell you how to go about starting a community garden.

Mail to: billmccabe@yahoo.com