The State We’re In: Grow Your Own Food At A Community Garden

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Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Does food taste better when you grow it yourself? Try it and see!

If you’d like to grow fresh veggies and fruits but can’t or don’t want to have a garden at home, consider a community garden. They’re sprouting up in many places around the Garden State, providing fantastic spaces to test your green thumb.

“Community gardens” refer to sites – often on public land – where individuals can tend a patch of soil for the growing season, usually for a small fee. These gardens are often fenced to keep out critters, and water sources are usually provided. Some gardens even have picnic tables where gardeners can get acquainted and share tips on planting, weeding and watering.

The American Community Garden Association (ACGA) estimates that there are more than 18,000 community gardens in the United States. The exact number in New Jersey isn’t known, since there’s no single master list, but the ACGA website has about 800 listings for our state.

Community gardens range from small neighborhood affairs with a handful of plots, to big gardens with hundreds. Some have sprung up in vacant lots in urban areas, while others are located in park-like suburban settings.

Fresh, nutritious food is only one of the many benefits of community gardens. According to the American Community Garden Association, community gardens stimulate social interactions, build self-reliance, help families reduce food budgets, and provide recreation, exercise, therapy and education. In cities, community gardens preserve green spaces, beautify neighborhoods and reduce crime.

Samantha Rothman, one of the co-founders of Grow It Green Morristown, said fostering a sense of unity among diverse populations is one of the most important benefits of her organization’s garden, now in its fifth season.

“The food is great, but in my opinion that’s a byproduct,” Rothman said. “The real power is in people working the land together – it’s a bonding experience.” For that reason, she added, community gardens thrive even in rural areas.

Duke Farms in Hillsborough has one of the newest and largest community gardens. It opened two years ago with 210 plots and doubled in size in 2012. It’s open to local residents, and those who rent plots must follow organic growing practices. Duke also offers organic gardening classes to its gardeners.

Another new organic-only community garden is located at the Land Conservancy of New Jersey’s South Branch Preserve in Mount Olive Township. Sixty-nine new plots are available this year, and a volunteer garden committee will educate members about organic practices and organize fun events like potluck dinners.

Education is a common extra at community gardens. Local “master gardeners” often visit to provide free expert advice on everything from choosing the right seeds and plants for New Jersey’s climate to techniques for getting the best yield out of your plot.

Put down roots at a community garden near you this summer! To search for a community garden by zip code, go to http://acga.localharvest.org. If you know of a vacant lot near you and would like to start one, go to http://communitygarden.org/learn/starting-a-community-garden.php for guidance.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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