The Summer of 2020 was spent gathering growers of all ages and experience levels at Windridge Apartments and Westminster Meadows for a season of productive, organic gardening, but what we found was so much more than food. Although the properties are quite a bit different, one being a senior living apartment and the other a conventional multifamily community, I was able to see firsthand how a garden can be a community gathering space and a mobilizer for health for all ages.
At Westminster Meadows, a core group of five Seniors would eagerly wait my arrival every Wednesday morning to take care of their garden. They were astounded by how well everything was growing, even though I would remind them that it was because our many hands that made light work of the space. They would share photos with their families to let them proudly know “I am now a gardener!”. We shared recipes and cooking tips at every visit, and I even got a few of them to try my “zoats” recipe (finely shredded zucchini in oatmeal – think zucchini bread, but for breakfast). The bounty that was harvested each week was far greater than the five could consume, so excess was brought in and laid on a table for other residents to enjoy.
At Windridge Apartments, I got to spend a fair amount of time in the garden with families. In a time where there is such a disconnect between where our food comes from and how it finds its way to our plates, the positive impact of having a connection for children to understand how food is grown is palpable. One mother shared excitedly that she could not get her son to eat greens in the past, but when they brought home armfuls of kale and collards from the garden, he couldn’t wait to eat them.
Another toddler would call cherry tomatoes “tomato berries” and ate handfuls fresh off the vine. A pair of sisters couldn’t get enough of finding and pulling green beans from the trellis. One father let me know that when he would find a recipe for dinner that had ingredients that were in the garden, they would walk over as a family to harvest what was needed. Although growing food is a relatively simple concept in and of itself, I will never cease to be amazed by how it can be a tool for community health and wellbeing.
I am hopeful that a gardening space will be an amenity that we will be seeing more and more in properties around the country. More so than ever, people have a longing to connect with where their food comes from. By providing a space for residents to grow their own food, properties are catering to this desire for health, knowledge, and an outdoor activity.
Luckily, a garden space near a home makes locally grown food accessible, rather than an upscale or elite amenity. Farm to table restaurants tend to be on the more expensive end and farmers markets have limited hours and are difficult for everyone to access. This past season, the communities at Windridge and Westminster Meadows needed to only visit the garden a short distance from their front door for nutrient-dense, organic foods.
In order to increase participation and have season long engagement, we aimed to reduce the barriers of participation that often plague growers. These can include a few things, such as a lack of knowledge or experience on growing or not knowing where to find the best plants and materials. These roadblocks were lessened by using the “Sharing Garden” model rather than the widely recognized rent-a-plot model. Rather than relying on the resident to find all their own plants, materials, time and knowledge to manage a single garden bed, The Sharing Garden relies on the whole community to band together for the whole space to thrive. All the tasks, harvest, and garden decision making are shared between those who have contributed in some way.
In the Windridge and Westminster Meadows gardens, we had set weekly gardening times for the garden community to learn about growing, perform weekly garden tasks as a team, and harvest what was ready. This way, we pushed aside the usual frustrations of beginner gardeners to welcome a new kind of community. The growers were able to lean on one another for the garden success of the whole. When a member of the Westminster Meadows community had a three-week vacation to visit her sister, she could relax knowing that the rest of the garden community will be caring for the plants while she was away. In the sharing garden, beginners and well-seasoned growers are equally successful, and for this year at Westminster Meadows and Windridge community gardens, the success was great.