Growing Gardens for Body and Mind

Growing Gardens, in Portland, OR, provides low-income families and schools with the material and educational resources needed to grow their own food.
By Tanya Denckla Cobb, with research by Robin Proebsting
November 2012
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"Reclaiming Our Food" is a practical guide for building a local food system, from urban lots to rural communities.
Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing
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Over the last decade a food revolution has taken place: More and more people are turning to local sources for the food they eat. Through the voices of people on the front line, Reclaiming Our Food (Storey Publishing, 2012) provides insightful commentary on the grassroots local-food movement across the country. In this excerpt from Chapter 1, author Tanya Denckla Cobb talks about a non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon, called Growing Gardens, that is helping low-income communities grow their own food. 

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Reclaiming Our Food.     

Growing Gardens’ mission is to promote home-scale organic food gardening to improve nutrition, health, and self-reliance while enhancing the quality of life and the environment for individuals and communities in Portland, Oregon. The group works primarily with low-income populations and schools, assisting them in cultivating gardens, increasing awareness of and interest in fresh local produce, integrating gardening into classroom curricula, and offering practical courses in cooking, preserving, and other aspects of garden-related living.

Some people think of gardening as an upper-class hobby, enticing only to those who have the time and money for it. Some think that lower-income people simply can’t be expected to be interested in growing their own food because they lack the land and resources or, as they often work two or more jobs, because they must also lack the time and energy to tend a garden. And if they have kids? Well, they must be too busy running between work and child-care duties. But in northeast Portland the nonprofit organization Growing Gardens, which promotes organic home food gardening, is blowing these stereotypes away. Since 1996 it has installed more than seven hundred home food gardens, and it is unable to meet the demand for home food gardens among the low-income population it serves.

“Growing Gardens is all about making sure that people have access to good, fresh food — healthy fruits and vegetables,” says Debra Lippoldt, executive director. “The neat thing is that people are actually growing for themselves, and we’re just helping them get the resources — whether it’s learning about something, or just getting the materials.”

“This is the biggest stress reliever in the world,” says Monique, a single mother of seven children, who lives in a small apartment in north Portland. When she started, she had no gardening experience and was interested only in growing cucumbers. Now she grows much more in her garden and has even progressed to starting her own plants indoors — a process that enchants her children. “It was instant joy,” she says, “because it made me realize they weren’t just going through the motions with me.”

“My garden is like my kids,” says Isabel, a young immigrant from Mexico City who grows food for family and to share with neighbors. Growing Gardens helped Isabel and her neighbors plant a container garden, but Isabel soon got permission from her apartment building’s manager to expand and plant a larger garden. She is proud that her tomatillos are not grown with chemicals like the ones she used to buy in Mexico City. She talks to her plants and says they can understand Spanish or English. When she’s sad, Isabel says, the garden cheers her.

“If it wasn’t for Growing Gardens, this beautiful life of our flowers and plants and raspberries . . . I would give up, really and truly,” says Violet, an elderly woman whose backyard is now brimming with plants. She says that she and her husband rarely shop for groceries because their garden is so productive.

This is just a glimpse into the lives that Growing Gardens is changing — all by the simple act of providing home gardens. “Our vision is to inspire as many people as possible to grow their own food,” says Caitlin Blethen, manager of the Youth Grow program. “Our focus is to work with low-income populations.”

Through years of learning by trial and error, Growing Gardens knows that installing the garden is just the gardener’s first step in a long process of learning. To increase the first-time gardener’s success, and to increase the likelihood that the gardener will actually keep planting seeds for years to come, Growing Gardens has innovated a unique and deliberate safety net for its home gardeners. It is a program worthy of emulation, as it reflects an understanding that people thrive with different kinds of support and interaction.

From the moment that participants enter the Growing Gardens program, they are guided at every step of the way. First, they must make a three-year commitment to stay in the program. In return a volunteer team installs the home garden, and Growing Gardens provides a start-up kit of seeds and tools, free workshops, a monthly newsletter, and, perhaps most important, a personal mentor who will visit at least four times in the season. “I ended up with a wonderful mentor,” says Monique. “We communicate all the time, and she shows up randomly, not just during the growing season.”

At the end of each season, Growing Gardens surveys its home gardeners. The majority, by far, have saved a significant amount of money by growing their own fruits and vegetables, says Rodney Bender, the garden programs manager. And what’s more, they also are eating better — not just because they’re eating fresh produce from their own gardens, but also because they’re doing more thinking about the kinds of food they eat, and what they buy when they go food shopping.

Growing Lifelong Vegetable Eaters

In addition to growing new home gardeners, Growing Gardens is also working with elementary school children in after-school garden clubs and summer garden camps through its Youth Grow program. “Connecting kids to their food sources is really valuable,” says Caitlin Blethen, “because . . . they’re more likely to eat what they’ve grown. A lot of times, they’ll say, ‘Groooss, broccoli!’ But when they see it on the plant, and pick it, they’ll eat it. That’s what we’re hoping for — to create good connections between kids and fresh vegetables, and where they come from, so they can continue to grow their own food in the future.”

In 2009 Growing Gardens worked with four Portland elementary schools. “We work with schools where at least 50 percent of the student body is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch,” explains Debra Lippoldt. All four schools participate in the city’s Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program, a community partnership program that provides resources for schools to coordinate and offer extracurricular educational, recreational, social, and health services to their students and surrounding neighborhood. Those services in part encourage the formation of active parent programs and after-school clubs.

Schools are stressed and busy places, especially resource-poor schools that serve low-income populations. Given this reality, Growing Gardens realized it would be inappropriate to try to create new demands or new structures for the gardening activities it hoped to implement. Instead, Growing Gardens piggy-backed onto existing school structures: The active parent program allows Growing Gardens opportunities to meet with parents to explore their needs, answer questions, and hear their suggestions. And the after-school clubs are a perfect platform for the garden club program.

Students can sign up for different clubs three times a year, with each club lasting about eight weeks and meeting once a week for two hours after school. Begun in 2000, Growing Gardens’ after-school garden clubs always include hands-on physical activities. Children plant seeds, transplant them, compost, tend worm bins, harvest and prepare vegetables, identify insects, and work as a team.

When Growing Gardens works with a school, it makes a commitment to offer the garden clubs for at least three years. The clubs are free, with parental sign-off, and each can handle up to 15 children. Some schools allow children to enroll in the garden club as many times as the child might wish, while others impose term limits. Growing Gardens’ experience is that children benefit from ongoing participation in the garden club, learning more about their food, gardening, and environment, and some children have even participated over several years.

“Kids really love the garden clubs,” says Lippoldt. Their success with the garden clubs has led Growing Gardens to develop other school-based programs such as summer garden camps and school gardens. More recently, they have decided to focus their summer efforts on a series of parent-child workshops — on planting seeds, planning a dinner garden, harvesting and eating vegetables, and worms.

Because many children in Youth Grow want to have a garden at home, Growing Gardens decided to synergize the connection between youth in after-school garden clubs and their parents. In 2009 Growing Gardens reserved 10 spaces in its home gardening program for parents at the schools where it was conducting after-school programs, and all 10 slots were filled. Not all parents who signed up had children in the after-school clubs, but some did. This is a creative way to connect the dots between learning in schools and learning at home, as well as between gardening for fun and gardening for fresh food. By connecting these dots Growing Gardens is weaving a complex community web to support healthy food and eating.

Training School Garden Coordinators 

By early 2010 the word was out about Growing Gardens’ success in working with schools, and the demand for its services from parents and teachers at other Portland schools had exploded. “We’ve had about 40 schools in the last year and a half come to us for help,” says Lippoldt.

Unfazed, Growing Gardens turned its attention to figuring out how to meet this overwhelming demand in a way that would foster sustainable change throughout the school system. Necessity bred the invention of a unique five-day, 35-hour certificate training program for school garden coordination. People who want to become a school garden coordinator learn the ins and outs and best practices for creating quality sustainable garden-based education programs.

Lippoldt says the certificate training attracts individuals who have a relationship with the school — parents, individuals who want to work with school gardens, and teachers. So far the training has attracted folks from Portland, but it’s easy to see how the certificate training may soon attract individuals from other cities and states who wish to bring the wisdom back to their own school systems.

Though the certificate training is still in its early years, Growing Gardens has a clear vision of what it will accomplish. Lippoldt hopes that graduates of the training will help schools grow and sustain their own garden-based education programs. And that, she hopes, will lead the schools to pool resources to hire part-time coordinators, who can network and support the garden-based programs throughout the entire school system.

“This is why we started the school garden certificate training,” says Lippoldt. “We are a small organization, and there is more need than we can fill.” In Portland the schools requesting help have a wide range of conditions — some with on-site gardens that were abandoned, some located near a community garden, some more well endowed. Growing Gardens focuses its efforts on those schools serving low-income communities, but it hopes the school garden coordinator certificate training will ultimately assist all Portland schools.

Like the training offered by the American Community Gardening Association in starting sustainable community gardens, and like the Food Project’s training in starting youth-based community farms, this certificate training emphasizes the importance of beginning with the community itself. Without community support, experts say the effort is wasted. Years of experience — successes and failures — have produced at least one consensus “best practice”: without the understanding and support of the community — whether a school, neighborhood, village, or city — a community garden can’t survive.

“Food really binds people together,” says Blethen. “All humans need to eat and need healthy food. Gardening is a great way to provide healthy food.” Growing Gardens sees itself as one piece of the bigger food-security puzzle. Its vision is to inspire anyone who wants to grow more food. With more than seven hundred home gardens, at least four school garden programs, and umpteen garden workshops to its credit, Blethen says the group has still barely made a dent. Others could argue that Growing Gardens has created a kind of tipping point, casting enough seed on fertile ground that it has already begun to multiply and naturalize on its own.

Installing Home Gardens for Low-Income Communities 

Build a volunteer program to install the gardens. In Portland, Oregon, the nonprofit Growing Gardens builds and installs an average of 60 or more home gardens each year with a volunteer program drawing on six hundred to seven hundred community members. Garden installation is the most popular volunteer activity, says Debra Lippoldt, executive director. When Growing Gardens sends out a request for volunteers for garden installation, the slots are usually filled within three days.

This remarkable feat is testimony to the power of tapping into people’s natural interest in growing and eating good food and coming together as a community, according to Lippoldt. Growing Gardens trains the volunteer crew leaders, who lead teams of 8 to 10 when installing the new gardens. On a typical spring or fall Saturday, Growing Gardens is able to install six new household gardens by sending out three crews that are each able to complete two new gardens. Volunteers also teach workshops and serve as mentors for new home gardeners.

Create double-dug beds, not raised beds. Conventional wisdom might suggest that the easiest way to install a new home garden is with raised beds. However, Growing Gardens found that after several years gardeners would request more soil to keep the beds “raised.” So instead, Growing Gardens creates gardens by double-digging in the spring and sheet-mulching and cover-cropping in the fall. Each household garden consists of two 4-foot-by-8-foot beds.

Test the soil. Soils can vary significantly in quality and contaminants, so it’s important to establish a protocol for testing the soil prior to installing a home garden. Local governments are a good source of assistance, as they often have federal funding to test for lead in the soil. Portland’s Water Bureau funds Growing Gardens to test its garden sites. If soil tests suggest a potential problem (in Portland lead contamination is common), Growing Gardens will recommend gardens of raised beds lined with plastic and filled with uncontaminated soil brought in from an outside source.

Establish basic requirements for participation. Over the years Growing Gardens has developed key requirements for participation in its home gardener program, to make sure its program continues to assist its target population. Participants:

 Must meet the same income-level requirements as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, or 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Applicants must fill out a form on which they self-report the number of people in the household and total household income, which determines their eligibility.

• Must attend the orientation, where Growing Gardens makes sure they understand that they will be fully responsible for their own garden.

• Must commit to participate for three years.

• Are encouraged to attend at least two educational workshops; in their first year they are able to attend all workshops for free and receive priority entrance.

• Are encouraged to volunteer during the growing season at Growing Gardens’ events, such as its “seed sorting party.”

Provide ongoing support for home gardeners. Home gardeners may be thrilled with their newly installed gardens, but some may have no idea how to manage them. “People come at all different levels of expertise,” says Lippoldt. Some people are already experienced gardeners and just need access to a garden, she says. Others know nothing about how to manage a garden.

To deal with these different levels of expertise, Growing Gardens has developed several methods of gardening support. Their new home gardeners:

 Receive a mentor who has committed to working with the new home gardener for at least one full season. The mentor will make four visits to the home garden during the growing season and also ideally will attend the garden installation. Growing Gardens is trying to create networks of home gardeners in the same neighborhood, so they can share seeds, recipes, and ideas and spread the community spirit. In addition to offering mentorship from program staff, they also try to link experienced gardeners with first-year gardeners.

 Receive seeds on a monthly basis for planting the next month. In the second and third year, participants receive seeds for the entire season at once.

 Receive a monthly newsletter with tips and advice.

 Are invited to a “plant distribution day,” where plants grown by volunteers are distributed. First-year gardeners receive basic supplies, such as bamboo poles, tomato cages, plant starts, hoses, and even raspberries and blueberries. Second- and third-year gardeners are also welcome to take plants, after the first-year gardeners have finished.

Most unusual, Growing Gardens offers a series of “Learn and Grow” workshops, some of which are offered in Spanish. Originally the workshops were intended for people in Growing Gardens’ home gardener program, but soon the program learned that others in the community wanted to attend as well. So Growing Gardens has opened the workshops to the broader community, and to ensure that money is not a barrier, they use a sliding-scale “donation” of $5 to $20. Also, participants in workshops can work in others’ backyard home gardens in lieu of paying a workshop fee.

Another key feature is that Growing Gardens grows its own volunteer program by encouraging home gardeners who have graduated out of the three years to volunteer as mentors, help install other gardens, grow starts, and more.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Our Food, published by Storey Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Reclaiming Our Food.  


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