Community gardens in cities, often touted as the the solution to many urban health and crime issues, have been used as an educational tool since the beginning of the twentieth century. Through gardening, “one learns not only practical skills associated with gardening—but also the civic-mindedness to nurture a community open space” . Gardens teach youth practical life skills, provide fresh produce, reclaim abandoned lots, and foster a sense of responsibility for the neighborhood among community members. With all these different functions, it is unsurprising that gardens across the country display a wide variation of organization and goals.
Gravois Park, a south St. Louis neighborhood, has a few lots serving as community gardens. One such garden, started by the International Institute and now privately cared for, stands on the corner of Pennsylvania and Winnebago. Looking across the fenced lot, one sees several large beds that have just been filled with fresh, dark dirt. Chickens roam the back corner.
Bridget Fischer, one of the keepers of the garden, shared her experiences with this particular garden. She is a mother and a “born and raised” St. Louisan, as she puts it. Currently, she is one of the main caretakers and organizes the distribution of produce to the neighborhood members.
First off, what’s your history in the neighborhood and why did you decide to get involved with this community garden?
“I bought a house down there in 2009. Calvin [the other caretaker] and I were neighbors, and we were both very big into gardening. He helped me take over my backyard and plant it full of plants. We always had the gate open, and people would stop in and out to say hi. And it was really cool because all these people were coming to hang out with us. They would bring us a couple of beers and some plants they didn’t need anymore. So when we had the opportunity to expand the community garden down the street, it seemed like the logical next step.”
Though both you and Calvin manage the garden, have you seen people in the community wanting to get involved?
“That’s a tough one. We hear a lot of talk about people wanting to get involved. It doesn’t follow through very often. The best help we ever get is from friends of ours that say, ‘Hey, are you going to be down there on Saturday? I’ll come by and help out.’ They usually put in a good amount of work, and we’ll let them take whatever they want from the garden because they’ve earned it. But it’s hard to get dedicated volunteers or coworkers, however you call it. We rely a lot on the Kingdom House and Manchester United Methodist Church for regular volunteers. As far as community efforts, it’s hit or miss. I think that the idea of a proper community garden, where everybody has their own separate beds to grow their own things for their families, is very idealistic and not very applicable to the real world. You’re talking about throwing a lot of stuff in not a lot of space—a lot of plants that don’t necessarily agree with each other, like they don’t have the same water needs or the same light needs. People tend to abandon their lots because they are not getting enough to feed their entire family. We would love to have people help out with the entire garden rather than a part of the garden, but then they don’t feel as invested in it. So it’s a double-edged sword.
It’s often been said that community gardens can positively affect the crime rate in some neighborhoods, just by providing green space. Thinking about this idea, is violence a concern in the area? If so, what types of violence have you witnessed?
“Low-income neighborhoods can be a big family or it can be a war against your worst enemies. At my house, my closest neighbor was a drug dealer, and he always kept a close eye on me because he knew that I was not going to report him. The whole ‘snitches-get-snitches’ thing — you can’t tell on your neighbors in a neighborhood like that and expect it to be safe. We do see a lot of violence or hear a lot of violence. There are a lot of fights that go on, lots of gunshots. People getting shot. Violence by the cops. It’s rough, it’s rough. But it’s not ever been anything that I’ve been afraid of because it’s usually people who are not in the community and are maybe visiting people in the community. For the most part, in the neighborhood, people look out for each other.”
Do you distribute the food that is grown in the neighborhood to neighbors? How is that distribution done?
“Especially in the summertime, neighbors will come down and say, ‘Can I pick a bag of cabbage?’ Or ‘Do you have some cabbage that we can use?’ We’ll take a donation if they can afford it. If not, we’re not very picky about it. A friend of mine is a social worker so whenever she gets a special case with a family, she will always holler at us for donations of fresh food, especially when the fruit starts coming in like the peaches or the watermelon. Those are a big hit for families who cannot afford it.”
Do you think that your garden encourages healthy eating habits in the neighborhood? If so, who does your garden influence the most (adults, children, or other)?
“I think that is true. Anytime you get food that is fresh, that’s not out of a can or jar, that’s still a step in the right direction. There are people that are making fresh collard greens and mustard greens or tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes. Every little bit helps. We have a group of kids that come by a lot. Especially when the fruit comes. They love the fruit. They’ll come in or work or just hang out with the chickens. Having a safe place to hang out is very helpful for them because they don’t have it in the rest of the neighborhood.
What are your future plans for the garden?
“We have plans to start planting fruit trees in the neighborhood. Calvin can remember that everyone had an apple tree or a peach tree their backyard. And we want to revitalize that program. We will hopefully start this fall, sponsoring five or ten yards in the fall and the same amount in the spring. Putting trees in for them, giving them instructions to take care of the trees. Just with an open promise that when the tree starts bearing fruit, they will share the bounty with their neighbors. Giving some more plant diversity in neighborhood.”
Have there been memories or moments from the garden that resonate with you?
“There was a guy who came up who said, ‘I’ve lived in this neighborhood for years. There was a time I was homeless and didn’t have any food. It was during the summer that I went up to the peach tree and I was able to take some peaches to eat every day and they were so delicious – they kept me alive.’ It was really really cool. I mean, it was before our time but wow.”
During our conversation, Fischer talked most excitedly about St. Louis, saying that it is “an affordable town so you can follow your dreams, and there’s enough support so you can get things done.” Her love for her neighborhood was plain to see. As we closed up the conversation, she talked about her favorite part about gardening: “I start the seeds at home. It’s really cool to see what amounts to something you can fit in the palm of your hand turning into hundreds and hundreds of pounds of food. I think that’s always my favorite: seeing something so huge come from a tiny little seed.”
As large as the goals of the community gardens are (from preventing violence to eliminating food deserts), it is important to remember that community solutions start as seeds. Though the garden may not produce enough food to support the entire neighborhood at the moment, perhaps that one peach tree or one plot of dirt is enough to keep a man or woman or child thriving. Maybe it’s enough to keep people rooted.