Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rethinking the Garden: Why Not a Garden of Opportunities?

Photo by Carlos Navarro
By Hank Bruce

Of course the community garden is a part of the sustainable solution to the problems of hunger, malnutrition, food insecurity and the diseases the haunt the empty dinner tables.

The family garden, the backyard, patio or rooftop garden, and the urban farm are also a part of the answer. But when we can grow even a part of our own food, we are empowered. Unfortunately, less than 10% of this nation’s community gardens are even wheelchair accessible.

What if we rethink the community, and the family garden, to make it much more than a place to grow vegetables?

What if we change the perspective from growing the plants to growing the people?

What if we make it possible for everyone to share in the fine and ancient art of gardening?

A scene repeated around the United States
George sat by the window watching the neighbors and their kids load the SUV with garden tools, garden gloves and a tray filled with tomato, chile and watermelon plants. There was also a lunch bag filled with brightly colored packets of seeds. He turned when he heard the click of Maggie’s walker approaching.

She sought the comfort of her recliner. “They off to the garden again?”

“Yeah.” He turned the wheelchair so that he was facing her before continuing. “Wish they’d let us old timers into that community garden of theirs.”

“Ya know we could teach them a thing or two about growing your own food.” Maggie spoke wistfully, but her lips were pursed in anger. “But there’s no way we could navigate the mud and bark paths to even get to those garden plots with wheelchair and walker, even if they did let us in the gate.”

“You’re so right.” George pushed his wheelchair back from the window. “Them that needs the garden the most is the ones that can’t afford the fees, or get around. What about us old timers, and folks like that blind kid down the street, or that soldier, paralyzed with a back injury. They could all benefit from growing their own food. No one should have to go hungry, and depend on the food pantry or commodities.”
The conversation continued about just how exclusive this so called community garden was, and how good it used to be when they could grow some of their own food. But George and Maggie are right. Of the thousands of community gardens in the United States, less than 10% are available to those who need them the most; the hungry children, the unemployed and homeless, the disabled and the elderly.

Unfortunately, many of these gardens are so exclusive that the people most in need, those of us for whom hunger is the uninvited guest at the dinner table, are the ones who would be accused of trespassing if they look over the fence.

A great community garden project was started in a declining inner city on the east coast a few years ago. A vacant city block was going to be the site for a community garden. Then a group of college students began to survey the demographics of this community. The people most interested, the ones most in need of a garden plot, were twenty blocks or more away, living in a series of senior housing and supported housing apartments.

After the students did their research a decision was made. Rather than a city block of garden, a series of local, neighborhood, backyard gardens were created. Gardens appeared on church grounds, raised beds appeared on the parking lot beside a homeless shelter, a declining elementary school created a wheelchair accessible garden near the classrooms where informal classes were held on nutrition and the families swapped recipes, shared music and meals as well as the gardening and the harvest. Working together, they grew far more than food, they empowered families and nurtured neighborhoods. The concept of a neighborhood garden brings this closer to home and hopefully increases the accessibility and expands the possibilities for the people living in the immediate area, the neighborhood.

A Neighborhood garden can help answer some of today’s serious problems
The urban food desert. In our inner cities access to healthy, fresh produce is extremely limited, and when available is often of poor quality and priced beyond the family budget.

Diabetes epidemic. 
Childhood obesity is a serious problem that crosses culture and ethnicity. Today’s children get less exercise that yesterday’s children, they eat much more junk food and live on a high carbohydrate, high fat diet. In a neighborhood garden children get exercise, and “if they grow it, they will eat it.” An improved diet is the natural consequence of families and neighborhoods gardening together.

This is a reality, not only in our urban areas but in rural areas as well. Again the traditional diet has changed into a high fat, high carbohydrate one based on fast foods, packaged or prepared foods, commodities & relief foods. We have pre-teen children diagnosed as Type 2 Diabetics. One of the factors that contribute to diabetes in all age groups is stress. Gardening is a great way to reduce stress without medication or therapists. This is the field of horticultural therapy at its best.

Malnutrition is most devastating in infancy , but for people of all ages it can lead to a wide range of health problems. A family or neighborhood garden may not provide a fully balanced diet, but can most definitely be an improvement. The future cost to a community to provide health care for conditions resulting from malnutrition is far greater than the cost of a garden today.

Cultivating community is one of the aspects of gardening programs that is all too often overlooked. When we empower the at risk youth by providing purpose and direction there is less likelihood of gang membership. When our elders are able to be a part of the gardening program there is a decrease in depression. When neighbors get to know each other, everyone can celebrate the rich diversity that dwells in almost every community. When this happens, a sense of community grows, while the social weeds; vandalism, drugs and gangs decrease.

Accessibility is a valid concern
Many members of every neighborhood function with limitations and disabilities. These may be physical, mental, or emotional. This doesn’t mean that they must be excluded from neighborhood garden programs that empower and provide opportunities to grow their own food, cultivate beauty, improve nutrition, engage in conversation and be a participating member of the neighborhood.

But, most community gardens aren’t designed to be accessible to:

❀ Wheelchair users
❀ Developmentally disabled children and adults
❀ Sight challenged individuals
❀ Stroke, cardiac and cancer patients
❀ Diabetics of all ages with physical limitations and diabetic amputees
❀ Residents of senior care facilities and rehabilitation centers
❀ Those on medications that limit the amount of time they can be exposed to bright sun
❀ Our elders have traded physical strength and endurance for the wisdom of their years
❀ Veterans carrying the scars of conflict in the form of brain injury or PTSD
❀ At risk youth, and our children who have made bad choices and are now in need of time and space to find themselves and their role in the community
❀ Victims of violence, domestic violence, school and workplace bullying and other situations that steal a person’s sense of self worth
❀ Neighbors possessing a wealth of knowledge and experience from other cultures, other nationalities, other ethnicities. Language may sometimes be a barrier, but it is also an opportunity for everyone to learn in a safe environment. Plants speak all languages.

When these individuals are excluded we all lose

Adapting the garden, the garden tools and the gardener
We are horticultural therapists. This means we use gardening, plants and related activities to empower, heal, improve quality of life and promote communication. To create opportunities for those of us with limitations to actively enjoy the benefits of the garden, we may need to adapt that garden. There are many ways that this can be achieved. We may also need to adapt the tools, or use commercially available specially designed tools.

To create opportunities for those of us with limitations to actively enjoy the benefits of the garden we may need to adapt it to facilitate gardening activities. The following are only a few suggestions.1. The more level the pathways in the garden the easier the access and use will be.
2. Access ramps and railings make mobility easier.
3. Paths need to be wide enough to permit easy movement of a wheelchair. 60" width will permit the passage of two walkers or wheelchairs, but a 36" path with “wide spots in the road” can be an acceptable alternative.
4. Curved paths and intersections are easier to maneuver than sharp angles.
5. Use pathway materials that are easy for a wheelchair or walker to traverse.
6. Pathways and walks need to be defined with curbs to make navigation easier and safer.
7. Container gardening elevates the plants for accessibility.
8. Raised beds & wheelchair friendly gardens provide accessibility for those with mobility limitation. Some of the raised beds should be on tables or stands that will permit a wheelchair to roll under them for frontal access. For comfortable access there needs to be 26-30" clearance for legs and/or wheelchair arms.
9. Underground or drip irrigation systems can eliminate the danger of hoses on the pathways and save water.
10. Hanging baskets can be on pulleys for easy access from a wheelchair.
11. Wall gardens, vertical gardens, trellises, arbors and pergolas can put plants within easy reach.
12. Growing dwarf fruit trees makes care and harvest easier, even from a wheelchair.
13. A garden can also include perennial vegetables, berries, grapes, native plants and the traditional vegetables of the diverse cultures calling New Mexico home.
14. The garden can be a place of beauty, serenity and peace. We can cultivate flowers along with the vegetables. They feed the spirit, and they inspire as well as put us at ease.
15. We can cultivate herbs, special corners for hummingbirds and butterflies, even sunflowers and cosmos for the birds.
16. The community can be involved in so many levels with the work of local artists and school students on display.
17. Bring the diversity of the community’s music, dance, and food into the garden. Have “garden parties” and recipe swaps, food sampling, interactive nutrition, cooking and food preservation classes.
18. Provide shade and sufficient space for an arbor, gazebo or benches to relax and visit.
19. There is almost always more than one right way to do almost anything. We can learn a lot when we listen. Every garden needs a list of possibilities, not a list of rules. The garden is a great place to share stories.
20. Cultivate the whimsy, from creative containers to a patch of grass where those from 1 to 100 can be barefoot, sing nonsense songs and blow bubbles.

Growing from community Gardens to Opportunity Gardens
There is such a garden being planned in four locations across New Mexico. Ft Sumner, Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Pueblo of Zuni will, through the support of NM Jewish Family Services and depending on funding resources, be the sites for pilot projects that will serve as models for the rest of the state. Hunger Grow Away is very pleased to be a small part of what these folks are doing. Hopefully, this is only the beginning. Perhaps similar gardens will be created everywhere; garden where the focus is on growing the people.

Our hope is to take this one step further and create a community accessible Charles Lewis Garden of Opportunities in the Albuquerque/Rio Rancho area in honor of one of the pioneers of modern horticultural therapy, and a resident of Albuquerque until his death in 2004. This could be a site with diverse gardens, space for programs and classes, and a place where research could take place.
A permanent site where opportunities to:
celebrate the people-plant connection,
practice therapeutic gardening
and conduct research for a better tomorrow
can grow and blossom

Elements of the Charles Lewis Garden of Opportunities
This could be a home for horticultural therapy in New Mexico, a place to serve the special needs, improve quality of life at all ages., This can be a place where we can all learn to work together to cultivate peace within ourselves and throughout the community. This can be combination of classroom and garden setting for the healthcare community, senior services and children with special needs. This can be a site where research can be conducted and professionals can gain insight into the value of the people-plant connection and the healing garden.

Vegetable gardens
Truly accessible table gardens, vertical gardens, trellises and arbors where the art of gardening can be combined with the grand traditions of the kitchen/backyard garden. Where we can learn from each other, share the foods of New Mexico’s diverse cultures and the techniques that make the family garden successful for all.

Horticultural Therapy programs
A site with “classroom” space to conduct indoor horticultural therapy programs for visitors from local senior care communities, adult day care programs, rehab and treatment programs, youth programs and more. A place where elements of the community can be welcomed for specific programs, special needs populations can have on-going programs with activities, engagement and empowerment.

Training programs
A site where classes can be conducted for senior care professionals, community and educational staff, family and professional caregivers, and healthcare professionals.

A site where research can be conducted on ways that horticultural therapy can be most effectively used in a variety of venues, including:
Growing healthy children in the garden
Learning basic life skills and survival skills
Hospital healing gardens; Cancer treatment and general surgery recovery
Adult day care and gardening activities
Senior care and progressive care services
Alzheimer’s programs to improve quality of life for the entire family
End-of-Life & hospice programs
Children and adults with special needs
Victims of trauma, domestic violence or PTSD

Perhaps we can begin with a Children’s Peace Garden.
Perhaps we can plant peace around the world.
What can happen if each of us plants just one tree,
nurtures just one dream?

We can make our gardens accessible for all. We can turn community gardens into gardens of opportunity. It can happen if we work together. For more information contact Hank Bruce & Tomi Jill Folk at or There is more information on their websites: and

Hunger doesn’t have a single cause,
nor is there a single answer.
But if we all work together
we can be the solution.

(The author is a Bread for the World member and co-founder of Hunger Grow Away, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving nutrition globally by supporting the use of accessible family, neighborhood, and community gardens for food security).

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