Growing More than Food






By Beka Bruner, Garden Education Intern
Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty

Just as they should be, my learning experiences here at VCGN are never-ending. Four weeks into my internship, I have already learned about many pests, even more plants, and I’ve also mastered the art of making homemade pesto. Although my knowledge base is widening quickly, it’s also deepening. More recently, I’ve learned perhaps one of the most valuable lessons: community gardens are not only for growing food, but they also for growing community. This may seem intuitive — I mean, the word “community” is in the name — but it has become apparent to me that community growth among the gardeners runs deeper than what meets the eye. I’ve had the great opportunity to see budding community in new garden sites, while experiencing it in full bloom in others.

Community Support

Joe Fulcher stands proudly in front of his garden.

Just recently, I sat down with Joe Fulcher, a veteran, at a picnic table underneath the shade of a large tree in the yard at St. John’s Hall, a COTS (Committee on Temporary Shelter) low-cost housing site. He very kindly shared stories about his love for gardening and being outside, while greatly emphasizing how much he loved to learn. However, I was most struck by a very simple statement of his: “I’m seeing people from the building coming down and eating too.” When I first heard this, I was thrilled! I thought, “More people with fresh produce? What more could you ask for!” But after a healthy serving of contemplation, I realized that more residents utilizing the garden meant more than just better food for all; it meant community. Already on our third week visiting this garden site, more and more people began to peek their heads out of the door or sit on the porch in order to catch a glimpse of our garden work. Could this lead to multiple people sharing in the harvest of tomatoes? Or former strangers cooking meals together with their fresh sweet potatoes? I imagine that the possibilities are endless, but that they will all eventually lead to great friendships and an even greater support system among the residents of St. John’s.

Community Healing

Ethan Allen Residents gather around the table to make pesto and chat!

At Ethan Allen Residence, I found a more subtle, but similarly important, formation of community. Most of the senior resident gardeners suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, and these residents’ conditions may hinder their ability to build relationships with one another. However, I’ve noticed that on garden days, the residents find ways to engage in conversation while they enjoy garden fresh salad or homemade pesto and encourage each other to smell the herbs or look at the flowers. I’ve seen remarkable changes in many of the residents, including more smiles and greater conversation. For these seniors, community resulted in greater comfort and stronger friendships within their home.

Community Family

Paw Wah shows off her large garden plot.

Finally, twice a week I witness community in full bloom. At the Family Room Garden, Paw Wah can be found sitting under a hand-made shade structure with multiple babies by her side, although none of them belong to her. Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Paw Wah about her experience in the garden. With a Burmese agricultural background, she wished to continue raising her own food when she immigrated to the United States in 2009. But, as we can imagine, the climates are strikingly different. She said she was “not a good gardener” when she first arrived, but with other Family Room gardeners by her side, she was able to converse with others in order to ask questions and learn quickly. “When I plant something and it’s not growing, I ask somebody, ‘how do you do that?'” Paw Wah explained. “So my garden every year gets better!”

Women from the Family Room care for young children.

Because of the community garden, Paw Wah is able to successfully grow her own produce, including that which is native to Burma. But successful gardening is not the only benefit. The Janet S. Munt Family Room is a parent child center providing programs that are accessible to all and flexible enough to meet the needs of Burlington’s changing community. The Family Room gardeners come from a very diverse range of backgrounds and cultures and the garden provides people an environment to overcome cultural barriers through their common relationship with food. They can build relationships and engage in conversation with people that they may never have met otherwise. Paw Wah now cares for many of her fellow gardeners’ babies and even referred to the other adults as her “first family in the United States.”  Not unlike many other gardeners, Paw Wah maintains her family traditions while continuing to build new friendships within a diverse community.

The term community within a garden context stretches much further than just a description of a garden for multiple people. It is support, it is healing, and it is family.

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