The Common Good
September-October 1999

Row By Row

by Rachel Thomas | September-October 1999

Urban gardens bring hope to the city.

"Just as a light from a candle can be seen more clearly in a darkened room, so can the human benefits of plants be seen more easily in communities lacking in economic and social opportunity." —Charles Lewis

Washington, D.C. neighborhoods range from those having virtually no economic structures to those having more money than they know what to do with. No matter where I am in the city, however, I almost always see green. Whether it’s a single potted geranium on a porch, a shade-giving tulip tree, or a 15-plot community garden ready for harvest, the feeling that green spaces give to a run-down neighborhood is hope.

An organization that facilitates some of that hope is Garden Resources of Washington, or GROW. Director Judy Tiger and her staff of Americorps volunteers are the movers and shakers of organic community gardening in the neighborhoods of D.C. Their mission is to help people help themselves by providing opportunities for individuals and communities to produce food, beautify neighborhoods, and to become environmental stewards through community green spaces and gardens. Together they are vision shapers, organizers, and educators for newly starting gardens, as well as friends to already existing community gardens. GROW provides services ranging from conversations about garden start-up to years of support, including such tasks as finding landowners and getting permission for land use. Their help is often even more down-to-earth—their large white truck is stocked with tools, hoses, seeds, and mulch.

GROW is involved in several D.C. public schools. After-school programs and school gardens are part of the joy that GROW shares with children. Working with all ages, Tiger and her volunteers drench children in hands-on environmental learning and reacquaint them with the importance of healthy food and knowing where it comes from. Kids of all ages love active learning. Too often environmental issues, such as food production, are distant in peoples’ minds, especially young urban minds. Hands-on involvement for these children makes those connections real, often for the first time.

RECONNECTING WITH THE LAND and producing good food is the hope for everyone who is assisted by GROW. Anyone can garden on a small scale, and the benefits of urban gardening go beyond window boxes and enjoying an occasional dinner salad. Even nongardeners see the rewards of other people’s work. Gardens are catalysts for community development, improving public safety and revitalizing neighborhoods. They promote proactive, sustainable solutions to unequal food access as well as community action and cooperation, giving people the means to rebuild their neighborhoods and lives in order not to be forgotten by the affluent of our world.

Tiger says there is usually very little opposition to community gardens by neighborhood residents or local government. The biggest challenge GROW often faces is the gardens’ lack of permanence. Community gardens are often placed on land destined for future development, and therefore the gardens’ life span is indefinite.

Despite the fact that their efforts are temporary, GROW is helping to facilitate long lasting and positive changes in the city. The community gardens have been bursting with brightly colored flowers, and the evidence that sweet corn and tomatoes are on the way makes mouths water. Seeing all of this makes the summer heat of the city a little more bearable

RACHEL THOMAS is an intern at Sojourners magazine and a community gardening wanna-be. For more information, contact GROW, 1419 V St. NW, Washington, DC 20009; grow19@aol.com. To find out about community gardens in your area, contact the American Community Gardening Association, 100 N. 20th St., 5th floor, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1495; www.communitygarden.org.

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