Cultivating Community

As an AmeriCorps VISTA member and recent transplant to Montana I was introduced to this great state through its community gardens and the people who are passionate about community gardening. My VISTA assignment description (by the way, VISTA stands for Volunteers in Service to America) used the word ‘community’ no less than sixteen times but, really, I had no idea what role community would play during my time here. That is, until I got out amidst the soil, the plots, the vegetables, and the people.

In March, I attended the ‘Growing Communities Workshop’ held by the American Community Gardening Association in Great Falls and met people who are working to develop community gardens all across the state. Their motivations were diverse, some were working from the standpoint of alleviating poverty and creating equal access to healthy foods, some saw community gardens as a way to teach children about agriculture, environmental issues, and even entrepreneurship. Others saw gardening as a way of combating health issues like obesity and diabetes in their community. And still others were using it as a tool for post-addiction rehabilitation as well as providing meaningful work for homeless.

Regardless of the motivation, I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of one person and one garden. For example, the Selma Held Community Garden in Helena is named after an activist who made it her mission to get access to open space and the opportunity to garden for the residents of her neighborhood. Selma was in her mid-eighties when she took up the cause and still incredibly energetic. She envisioned a community garden where young children and the elderly could plant and grow together. Selma worked to have her vision come to life, literally. She organized her neighborhood to get together and design the park, investing time and energy to make it happen, even calling the City Parks Department weekly.

In communities across Montana people are coming together over shared concerns for food, environmental health, and a desire to live locally once again.  Some act upon these concerns through community gardening, and, intentionally or not, neighbors who have never spoken before are getting to know each other while picking peas and over local harvest potlucks. These are small, everyday actions, which taken together, have extraordinary power to create more resilient relationships.

Community gardens are playing a role in other contexts, as well. As part of it’s 2009 Climate Action Plan, the Helena Climate Action Task Force recommended that the City facilitate increased food production within the city limits by developing community gardens within walking distance of every neighborhood by 2015, a goal that the Growing Community Project of Helena has been at work on since 2007. Apart from the community-building role that gardens can play, there are clear practical advantages for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the long-distance transportation of food, fertilizer and pesticide use, as well as the maintenance of open, often under-used grassy areas.

With demand for local food growing, community gardens are not always considered an important piece in the larger picture of community-based food systems and there is skepticism that production on such a small scale can really make a difference. Community gardens are about more than production; they are widespread models and symbols of what so many people are working towards in terms of sustainability and resource conservation. You can’t get a system that’s much more low-input than people growing their own food within walking distance of their homes.

Often gardens act to encourage experimentation in further reducing resource use. People are asking how can we capture rainwater onsite for irrigation? How can we use waste from the garden to produce compost? Another tenet of sustainability is creating opportunities for economic prosperity with local resources. Many community gardens and farms are working on the question of how to create an income for people in the community. Garden City Harvest in Missoula has partnered with the Youth Drug Court to employ at-risk youth harvesting and delivering fresh produce to sell at very low cost to seniors and people with disabilities. With creative programming the community garden space can be a starting point and an incubator for much larger ideas with positive global impacts.

If there is anything I have seen, it is that a little determination goes a long way. If your community doesn’t have a garden, start one. Look around with a different set of eyes- any neglected or leftover space is an opportunity to make something better and there are more examples than ever of groups who are making a garden or farm work in their community. If there is a garden in your community, get involved in any way you can think of, there are more options than simply renting a plot. In this season of harvest and abundance, check out what’s growing in your community.

 In Helena, I’m Caroline Wallace for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at

This commentary aired on Montana Public Radio on August 18, 2011.

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