By Amanda Wolkin
Community gardens are sprouting up and spreading like ivy across Buckhead and Brookhaven.
Whether the motivation is making new friends, feeding families locally grown food or giving back to the community, gardeners are coming together to cultivate plots with their neighbors, said Fred Conrad, community garden coordinator at the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
“There’s in the neighborhood of 200 community gardens in Atlanta, with about six in the Buckhead and Brookhaven area that I’m aware of,” said Conrad.
“I think this is a popular concept in Atlanta because we are so urban and lots of people don’t have space or land for a garden of their own,” said Nancy Jones, Executive Director of Buckhead’s Blue Heron Nature Preserve, a space which boasts a 32-plot community garden established in 2006. “Also, I think there is a wonderful feeling of belonging to a group that shares a love of gardening and a common place.”
Just down the street from Blue Heron lies a more modest 21-plot community garden, lying on the outskirts of the Little Nancy Creek Park. The garden is serene, with each plot marked by the name of each gardener and bees buzzing through the spirals of tomatoes. The garden, however, went up with a fight.
“The story of our little community garden was that a developer bought the property and wanted to put up houses,” said Christy Roberts, a gardener whose plot is marked by a hand painted “Christy’s crops” sign.
“Members from the two surrounding areas, Historic Brookhaven and North Buckhead, joined together to fight it, and we saved the property. Park Pride then came in and said, ‘We have the money, you have the space, why not start a community garden?’And on Nov. 6, 2009, the entire garden went up in one day.”
Twenty plots were quickly snatched up by the “founding gardeners,” and one plot was left over as the “charity plot.” Ten hopeful gardeners have signed up on the waiting list for the next available plot, but there is no promise of getting their hands dirty any time soon. In the past year, there has only been one plot turnover, which was given away only because the gardener moved away.
Conrad believes the social aspect of community gardens is primarily what draws more and more families each year.
“Even if you’re socially inept, it’s so easy to strike up a conversation about tomatoes or ask your neighbor for tips about the squash,” Conrad said. “It’s a shared and welcoming environment, and very easy to get people talking.”
“Most of us did not know each other beforehand, and it’s been a chance to meet a lot of neighbors and to socialize,” said David Goldin, a gardener at the Peachtree Hills Community Garden in Buckhead.
The garden, which was founded three years ago by Anne Stanley after she spent years gardening in her neighbor’s backyard as hers was too small and shady, has expanded from its six original gardeners to include 24 plots. There is, of course, a waiting list.
Another driving force behind the surge of community gardens in the past few years has been the various food scares, such as the salmonella tomato outbreak in 2008, as well as the superior quality of food.
“I garden so I know how I got my food,” Roberts said. “I know what’s in them, what’s on them and what variety they came from. I know the story of the squash, and I can see that develop from seeds to something on my plate. I cook more now, and I’m hoping my kids will eat more veggies.”
“I think it is a lost art and I don’t think many people these days even know what a homegrown tomato—or any other vegetable for that matter—tastes like,” Stanley said. “And there no comparison between homegrown and store bought.”
While the gardeners are attracted to the community gardens for reasons as varied as the crops they grow—anything from okra to broccoli—many want to give back to the community.
At the Little Nancy Creek Community Garden, all crops in their charity plot are donated to a local soup kitchen. At Peachtree Hills and Blue Heron, surplus produce is donated to Plant a Row for the Hungry, a national organization developed by the Garden Writers Association of America in 1995 and executed locally by the Atlanta Community Food Bank since 1996. According to Conrad, in 2009 Atlanta’s Plant a Row for the Hungry gathered 32,007 pounds of food to local hunger-relief organizations.
And the gardeners running the brightly decorated Oglethorpe University-Brookhaven Community Garden – decorated with wooden signs along the fences with phrases such as, “The best things that can come out of the garden are gifts for other people.” – give away 100 percent of their produce to the Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church Food Pantry, a service which feeds about 20 families.
This community garden runs differently than others. Rather than having gardeners responsible for their own individual plots, the six raised beds and six circular beds located behind Oglethorpe University’s Emerson Student Center are tended by volunteers from four local organizations: Oglethorpe University, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, St. Martin’s Episcopal School and Brookhaven Community Church. Volunteers from each of the four organizations split up watering and harvesting. They all gather on work days at the start of each season to plant new crops.
Tips for Starting a Community Garden:
- Form a planning committee of four to five people who are interested in developing the garden
- Choose a site, taking into account sunlight, soil quality and water availability
- Organize the garden, thinking about plot size, membership conditions and a charity plotSource: Atlanta Community Food Bank
The garden began on Feb. 16, 2009, and was the brainchild of Michael Dalmat, Senior Evaluator at the Centers for Disease Control; Patrick Tracy, Senior Vice President at Omni National Bank; and UGA Cooperative Extension County Agent Bobby Wilson. The garden was created after the three traveled together to Honduras to build community gardens there.
Kimber Tate, who is in charge of Oglethorpe University’s involvement with the garden, had a family garden growing up. However, once she moved to Atlanta, she found it nearly impossible to maintain one of her own—until she was given the chance to go back to her gardening roots.
“I was very happy to have the chance to garden again, even if the produce wasn’t for me,” said Tate. “In fact, it just makes it that much more valuable because it’s going to a good source. We’ve brought together all sorts of people in the community and now we’re able to provide food back to families that need it.”
A desire to give back to the community has planted similar seeds of change throughout the Buckhead, Brookhaven and Sandy Springs communities.
According to Deputy Fulton County Manager Gwendoyln Warren, the North Fulton Service Center at 7741 Roswell Road will be adding a community garden to its grounds as part of a $1.9 million renovation project. The garden, which should be up and running by the end of summer, will be used as a teaching lab for community members to learn growing techniques and a place for families to cultivate their own food.
“There is a huge lesson here: for people to become connected to the earth and nature they need to a part of it, and this is what happens with a community garden,” Jones said. “People become invested and they start to care. Community gardens are an important step in stewardship.”
If interested in starting a community garden in your area, contact Fred Conrad at firstname.lastname@example.org.