The essential role of community gardens

These food production spaces also provide a place for togetherness during a time when we feel furthest apart.

Just over one month into the Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order, the scene outside my window is beginning to look a little bit brighter. The light green locusts lining State Street have newfound vitality and sunsets on Lake Mendota are now a post-dinner treat after a walk. While quarantine measures remain, the natural world is in motion. Spring’s resurgence and the start of Wisconsin’s growing season is even more impressive to me at a time like this. It also reminds me of my deep appreciation for community gardens and the value they provide in allowing us to connect to the Earth and the community.

In the governor’s emergency order that ceased many non-essential interactions, community gardens were OK to remain open as part of an essential outdoor activity, with the addition of social distancing and sanitization restrictions. This allowed those who grow their own food at these shared plots to continue operating in Dane County’s collective 42 acres of community garden space.

“For some people, it’s a nice place where they go to interact with plants and nature but for a lot of people it’s an essential spot to get food to survive and be healthy,” says Nicholas Leete, manager at The Gardens Network, which is a partnership of Rooted, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Extension Dane County and the city of Madison. The Gardens Network, which connect people in Dane County to spaces and other resources to create gardens, also ensures these gardens are kept operational and inclusive across Madison.

My experience working at Madison’s largest and oldest community garden, the Eagle Heights Community Garden, or EHCG, showed me how valuable community gardens can be. It isn’t just a place where people grow plants, but where a shared collective identity can be formed.

Across the 8-acre stretch of land, about 60 different languages are spoken at EHCG. During the early spring months, you can see a wide variety of gardening practices and at least a few crops you have never heard of. I was introduced to EHCG during the closing months of spring semester my freshman year of college. A friend invited me on a bike ride to pick up some produce for a potluck we were hosting that night. It was one of the first days when the sun felt hot on your skin and the chain on my bike was still rusty from the long winter.

We were joined by some friends of his who lived in the neighboring Leopold Residence Hall, which housed the GreenHouse Learning Community. On our ride along the Lakeshore Path, they talked about how they had their own plot that they planted, maintained and harvested. My excitement built as we locked our bikes and made our way up the hill at the entrance to Picnic Point.

While I had been to the Lakeshore Nature Preserve in the past, our journey to the garden took me down an unfamiliar path. The sun peaked in between the towering fencerow trees that lined the trail through the Biocore Prairie.

Even beyond the natural beauty were the expressions of joy and reverence my new friends had for the area. While I had never done much gardening, their attachment to the garden was something I could appreciate. I saw a common love not only for the physical space, but for the community.

EHCG has been an important plot of land in Madison since the early 1960s. It has acted as a canvas for the international residents of Eagle Heights to put their impact on the landscape. It now features an eclectic make-up of gardeners, from student organization members to local residents to academic students.

During this time of isolation, people are missing the connection with nature and each other, which community gardens like the EHCG can provide. (Albeit the social connection part is from a distance.)

“I can tell you that we have assigned almost all of our garden plots this year. In the last three years, we were never quite full and didn’t have to keep a waiting list,” says says EHCG Registrar Kathryn Padorr. “I think that the virus is driving much of the increase in interest we’re experiencing this year.”

Padorr encourages gardeners to bring their own tools and maintain active sanitation practices while we continue to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Another challenge facing community gardens is communication. The spaces host people from a variety of different socio-economic and language backgrounds. This has been one of the major challenges for The Gardens Network.

“Getting messages out there is a big challenge especially since gardens are changing a lot, and any time when there is change there is a risk of leaving behind the most vulnerable populations; like those that don’t have access to the internet or high English speaking ability. Those are groups we are making sure are not left behind,” says Leete.