When the pandemic hit last March, interest in community gardens around Boulder County skyrocketed. Some people found themselves with the time to garden, perhaps for the first time. Others could see the benefit from growing their own food, at a time of uncertainty about the safety of food production and grocery stores around the country. People were also looking for a chance to get outside and connect with people in a safe, socially distanced way.
“It was this quote unquote safe space where you could be and feel pretty normal, to be outside, but to have other people around you, not to feel isolated and be able to connect with people,” says Mona Esposito, who has been gardening with local nonprofit Growing Gardens for years, and planted in a community garden in Aspen before that. “It’s what we’ve all been missing so much.”
As growing season quickly approaches in 2021, community gardening is just as popular as ever, as people relish the idea of growing their own food, knowing where it comes from, and keeping it sanitary as the pandemic rages on. This year, when registration first opened up in February, Lauren Kelso, site director for Growing Gardens, says “it was bananas for 24 hours.” For the most part, Growing Gardens, which manages approximately 400 plots across its seven locations in Boulder County, has no room left, with the exception of Kerr garden in Louisville. But, other independent gardens at churches or in neighborhoods may still have availability. And there’s always the waitlist.
Pandemic aside, for those who live in apartment buildings or retirement communities, lack of backyard space is often why people choose community garden plots. Some homeowners maybe have inefficient sunlight in their yards. But there are many other benefits to community gardening besides just access to suitable land.
“One of the overwhelming things I heard from gardeners last year was the incredible impact that it was having on people’s mental health,” Kelso says. “There was a lot of sort of gratitude that people had this kind of space to utilize.”
Community gardening can also be more cost effective than growing in your backyard, as there are plenty of shared resources from tools to water to help getting started. And most gardens offer additional educational opportunities for newcomers and seasoned gardeners alike. Growing Gardens has plenty of online material — for those with plots or for home gardeners — covering everything from gardening basics to garden design and planning. Plus, there’s nothing like learning from gardeners in neighboring plots.
“One of the biggest benefits that I’ve seen so far is just having that community that gardens with you and seeing everybody else’s techniques and learning from them,” says Lance Cayko, president of the nonprofit Longmont Community Gardens, which, in partnership with the City of Longmont, manages and fosters the garden at 11th Avenue.
These gardens provide a space to connect with others from a variety of walks of life, while also offering myriad ways to contribute to the overall community.
“Community gardens historically are super eclectic. It’s one of the of the few places where you really can bring together diverse people side by side, all these different personalities, different levels of experience,” Esposito says.
She says some of the gardeners she knows have been at the community plot for more than 30 years. Others, like a young couple right across from her, just started in 2020. There are retired farmers and chefs with their own plots too. Most gardens are open to the public, creating outdoor spaces for folks to walk around and enjoy the scenery, while talking to gardeners they may never come across in their day-to-day lives. Community gardens also create habitat for essential pollinators and birds in the middle of the city, which help maintain, even increase, biodiversity. And most donate excess produce to food banks and other partners, helping feed those in the community who are food insecure.
“We’ll hit these real heavy points in the summer, like sometimes we’ll have just like a crazy amount of zucchini, everybody is always trying to get rid of zucchini,” Cayko says. “And so we’ll have a bin that people can put their excess vegetables in and then we’ll have a volunteer that takes them to the Our Center in Longmont.”
At Growing Gardens, excess food is donated to community partners like There with Care, for families facing critical illness, and the Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA). Individuals are also encouraged to donate extra produce on their own.
And most gardens have some sort of community service requirement. At all of Growing Gardens’ plots, gardeners have to give four hours of volunteer service per plot, per year to the garden, whether that’s helping fix the fences or helping a neighbor with weeding. They can also organize a food donation, help take care of a plot for someone who is sick or volunteer at events and with the Cultiva Youth Project, which engages young people in urban farming, growing produce for the CSA and other community partners.
As Esposito says: “There are all these opportunities to engage in community.”
Perhaps that’s the biggest benefit of community gardens, right there in the title.