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August 06, 2002
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DESERT BLOOM: Community Gardens

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I just returned from an exciting trip to New York City, where I attended the 23rd annual conference of the American Community Gardens Association. This was a pretty exciting meeting, with participants from all over the US and Europe, as well.

When you say the words 'gardens and 'New York' in the same sentence, people tend to give you nearly the same surprised, blank look that they give you when you say 'gardens' and 'Las Vegas' together.

Don't be fooled, though. New York City is a horticultural paradise. It's chock full of gardens and parks. There are big parks, each with hundreds of acres, in all five boroughs. Then, tucked into corners and little spots all over town are 'vest pocket' parks, with benches and playgrounds as well as trees, shrubs and flowers. Not only that, the city has world famous botanical gardens, which are breathtaking. All told, there's 28,000 acres of parkland in the Big Apple. And that's not even counting all the tree lined streets in residential neighborhoods.

Over the past 20 years or so, there's been another development in the city of New York. Community gardens, bursting with vegetables and flowers, have taken root in spots that had once been vacant lots. Inhabitants have reclaimed places that had been desolate and filthy. Local people, from low income to comfortably middle class, have created thousands of these oases. As part of the conference, I visited four separate community gardens in a single neighborhood. And what a neighborhood! When I was growing up in New York City, we considered that area so dangerous that we wouldn't dream of going there unless we lived there.

But residents, many of them senior citizens, began taking back these lots and transforming them from squalid pockets of devastation to bright green spaces. Even the city government grudgingly gave some technical assistance to their efforts. Now each community garden offers the opportunity for 20 or 30 families to become urban farmersand there's about 750 of these garden throughout the city.

Isn't this great? Folks produce food they like and participate in the wonder of growing plants. Young people are becoming more and more involved, too. And that's an indication that there's more going on than simply gardening.

New York city has a huge number of people from around the globe living and working in a very small area. With so many people, coming from such divergent backgrounds, it's not easy to create or maintain a sense of 'community' or 'neighborhood'. This is just as much of a problem for well-to-do areas as it is for impoverished ones.

The common work of a garden - maintaining the compost pile, weeding the flower borders, explaining to children why they can't jump on the seedlings in the raised beds - not to mention sharing information and experience, helps to weave people into a social fabric.

All the gardens have raised beds, which is the best way to deal with the terrible soil conditions in the city. Most have flower borders that brighten the neighborhood with vivid displays of color. Some have compost bins that show how we don't need to generate so much garbage. Some have shows of local artists who often have trouble finding a place to present their work. Still others are the sites of community job or health fairs. Even people in the neighborhood who don't participate develop a sense of ownership and pride when they walk by a flourishing garden on their block. How could they help it? It's such a sign that their area is worth taking care of; that it is valuable.

Las Vegas has only a small handful of community gardens, but what an idea for this city. Here, where the population increased by six hundred percent in twenty years, wouldn't it be terrific to see shared spaces where the local population had a stake? Not just our own backyards - those tend to isolate us - but rather community gardens, where we could learn, and teach, and grow?

Unlike New York City dwellers, who need to deal with the problem of too little space, here in Las Vegas, we have to figure out how to work together in spite of having too much! It's still easy for us to escape from each other. A place that has seen such a population explosion needs to invent an identity different from 'Sin City'. Why not the 'Garden City of the Desert'? Why not have water thrifty, beautiful and productive gardens that bring neighbors together? Certainly we want public parks with appropriate plant materials throughout the valley. But shouldn't we citizens create spaces where we will grow, not only lovely and delicious plants, but communities as well?

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Community Gardens

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Garden in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Grape arbor in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Garden in Weeksville, Brooklyn Gardener in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Flushing meadows/Corona Park, Queens Gardeners' meeting, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Scarecrow in garden, Staten Island, NY City Hall Park, New York

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