The Power of Gardens
by Lisa Duchene
Gardening is more than a hobby—it can teach food literacy, bring people together, and teach respect for food and the challenges of growing it.
On a late summer morning, Ephraim Govere snaps off an eight-foot stalk of sweet sorghum from his plot at the Penn State Community Garden. He breaks the stalk over his knee into one-foot pieces. As a boy in Zimbabwe, he says, this was the chewing gum he carried in his school bag: ipwa, as he and his friends called it in their native language, Shona.
“Mmmmm,” he says (no translation needed) as he chews the sweet liquid from the fibers, then offers a fresh, green piece to a visitor.
A dozen or so gardeners have gathered this Saturday morning to learn how to cook a compost pile hot enough to kill seeds from weeds. Anna Navrotskaya, Russian-born and now studying French at Penn State, brought her five-year-old son, Aharon, so they could learn how to use compost to enrich the soil in their plot next year. She also hopes the experience will teach him that food doesn’t grow on grocery store shelves.
A woman from Malaysia, Ada (short for Nur Suhada Abu Bakar), shows off some lush, spear-shaped leaves: fresh turmeric, her favorite plant. She uses it in a Thai dish, along with chicken, coconut milk, and rice. For her, this patch of 98 plots tucked into a hollow below Beaver Stadium and Medlar Field is where she finds respite from graduate work in agronomy. In her plot, she sows the plants she loves—flowers, herbs, even water plants that grow in the tiny pond she carved into the ground.
For Govere, the community garden is a place where he can tell others about the food from his native country. For Navrotskaya, it’s an outdoor classroom where her son learns how tiny seeds pressed into the earth—given time, sunlight, and water—grow into cucumbers, pumpkins, and all kinds of food, even his favorite: tomatoes.
Many have experienced gardening’s physical and spiritual rewards: the satisfaction of growing a beautiful, nutritious vegetable or lovely flowers; the meditative bliss of repetitive tasks of weeding, sowing, and mulching; and the triumphs—and tragedies—of working with nature.
Community gardening adds another dimension to the experience by bringing people together. They learn to sow and grow food together; the harvest is collectively celebrated; the failures collectively commiserated; and anything and everything about gardening is shared and magnified into something larger and more valuable than the sum of its parts—something both delicious and magical.
One of the many benefits of gardening, whether at home or as a community, is knowing what it really takes to grow food.
“I like learning about all the ways I can fail,” says Franklin Egan, a charter member of the Penn State Community Garden and doctoral student in plant science and ecology. “It’s a fascinating, humbling experience to run into obstacles like rabbits or weird insects I didn’t know existed. And to get so excited about the early spring that I plant out before I should, then lose all those plants to a late frost.”
Over the five growing seasons since the garden’s inception in 2008, gardeners have commented about how much they’ve learned and how much more they appreciate their food, says Egan.
A few summers ago, he says, a mechanical engineer turned to gardening as a break from long hours of computer work. He planted sweet potatoes, and went downright giddy when it came time to dig up a bumper crop—far larger than he expected, or knew what to do with.
The community garden welcomes the experienced gardener, as well as those who have never before sunk a shovel into the earth. Yet, despite the considerable expertise at the community gardens, failures happen. No vegetable harvest is ever guaranteed.
In August 2008, the first growing season, nearly all of the gardeners planted tomatoes. The plots overflowed with gorgeous, healthy green foliage and ripening fruit—that is, until one plant turned brown and withered, its tomatoes covered in brown splotches. Within a few days, late blight, a disease mainly of tomatoes and potatoes, spread like wildfire and wiped out the tomato plants in all 100 plots.
That fast, the tomato harvest was gone.
“It really lets you know you should be happy whenever you go and get a nice August tomato,” says Egan. “I think a lot of people realize that in a lot of ways when they’re down here.”
Those surprising yields and disappointing losses help people better appreciate the effort, resources, and risks involved in growing food, says Egan, something known as “food literacy,” though the gardeners are unlikely to use that term as they water and chit-chat on warm summer evenings.
One indication of a lack of appreciation of the true value of food in America: an estimated 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report in August 2012. Producing food takes 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget, half of U.S. land, and 80 percent of fresh-water consumed in the United States, yet 40 percent of food is uneaten, says the council.
Community gardens like the one at Penn State University Park are part of the solution because they help people learn to grow their own food, says Egan. David Mortensen, professor of weed and applied plant ecology and faculty adviser to the community garden, agrees.
“I am of the opinion that if we’re connected to the work that goes into it, where it comes from, and what it does for a healthy body,” says Mortensen, “then we make wise choices about the things we eat and about eating the things we buy.”
Mortensen learned the power of community gardening as a high school student in the early 1970s on Staten Island, New York. There, a community garden helped heal a rural area that had been rapidly developed and saw violence and social upheaval in the 1960s.
“As much as it was about growing something—and it was about that, too—it was about having positive things going on in a community that could knit a community back together and emphasize some positive aspects of a sense of place that were undermined by the unrest occurring in that city at that time,” says Mortensen.
Ever since, Mortensen has been involved in community gardening in some way, shape, or form, wherever he has lived, and understands its power.
Likewise, several people who have volunteered to launch, organize, and run the Penn State Community Garden have been inspired to continue and do similar work, including Clare Wagner, Agroecology ’09. As an undergraduate studying agroecology and horticulture, Wagner helped set up the Penn State garden.
Now, she is the community garden program coordinator for Green Venture, a community-based, nonprofit organization in Hamilton, Ontario. Wagner uses the written rules and policies of the Penn State garden—called its “constitution”—as a model for people creating community gardens in their neighborhoods.
“[Dave Mortensen’s] input helped to guide what tools I developed here based on what we had done there,” says Wagner.
Penn State Extension reconizes the value of gardening and through its Master Gardener program brings knowledge and experience to individuals and communities across Pennsylvania (see sidebar). Master Gardeners complete 36 hours of horticultural training from the college, and then volunteer—50 hours the first year—to teach gardening utilizing research-based information on best practices in consumer horticulture and environmental stewardship. Master Gardeners participate in civic beautification and demonstration garden projects and are willing and able to educate individuals and groups in gardening topics such as plant selection, composting, soil improvement, pest control, vegetable and flower gardening, pruning, and more.
Statewide, there are 2,208 certified Master Gardeners and 448 in training, at last count.
The current student-officers of the Penn State Community Garden also recognize the power of sharing experience and all say they would work on or create new community gardens if and when they move on to new places.
On this shared patch of earth, enthusiasm and experience feed off of each other as people share the joy of teaching and learning how to grow food. What surprised Navrotskaya most about her first season was that “there were so many young people enthusiastically working in the garden.”
As a kid in Russia, she remembers her family tending a big garden, but in her twenties she wanted nothing to do with. Now, it’s again pleasurable.
Their compost lesson over, the gardeners go to work in a warm drizzle under puffy gray clouds, prying weeds from the wood-chipped paths, ripping out spent or diseased tomato plants from their plots, and harvesting another bucket of tomatoes or peppers.
Among the splatter of rain drops are murmured questions of where to take a full wheelbarrow, and quiet conversations among gardeners, some with foreign accents, and some who are students, others who are professors and scientists.
Working the soil for vegetables is the only lifestyle Govere has known. He rarely relies on the supermarket for produce. “There are no supermarkets there,” he says of Africa.
Most vegetables Govere and his family eat—plus those he shares with friends and neighbors—were grown in one of his three gardens: the plot of sweet sorghum and cherry tomatoes at the Penn State Community Garden, another community garden plot in State College, or the huge vegetable garden at his house.
He smiles and beams as he describes the beautiful Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and mustard greens grown from seeds given to him by a fellow gardener from China. “So for the community garden, one of the benefits is the sharing part,” says Govere, “of knowledge, of products, and of seeds. So really, it has a big advantage.”
For more information on these programs: