Friday, May 30, 2014

Community Gardens Grow Community

Why grow your own food? From Stop & Shop to the Hastings Farmers Market and everything in-between, we have easy access to food around here. So why bother?


Merle Huebner is Director of the
 9th District of Federated 
Garden Clubs of New York State, 
Chair of the Dobbs Ferry 
Beautification Committee 
and Liaison between 
the Garden Club of DF & DFBC 
and the Federated GC of NYC. 
She was asked to chair the 
Dobbs Ferry Beautification Committee 
years ago by her neighbor, 
the mayor, who saw the beauty 
she grew in her own garden.  
This was going to be part of the “pitch” for Roots & Wings breakout session on Local Foods during Sustainable Dobbs, a community event on May 10 . . . hoping to suss out enthusiasm for healthier, home grown, do it yourself vegetables. But the earlier portions of the program ran over, and attendees had already begun slipping out the door when the breakout sessions were announced.

Only a small circle gathered—several of us already involved in Roots & Wings’ Kitchen Garden, our two panelists, Ray Figueroa-Reyes, Jr. and Merle Huebner, Marsha Braithwaite, and a few others who drifted in and out.

Merle Huebner, a petite and hardy looking grandmother, and Director of the 9th District of Federated Garden Clubs of New York State, started off the discussion. “I grew up on a farm in Midwestern Canada, about 500 miles north of Minneapolis.” Then her gardening credentials: “We were organic and sustainable. But we didn’t use those words. No one did. That’s just how it was. We grew root vegetables and potatoes and stored them in the cellar for use throughout the winter.  We did not use any pesticides.  We tilled the gardens with a tractor and mixed manure into the soils.  We made everything from scratch, and raised our own animals and stored their meat in a community food locker.”

Panelist Ray Figueroa-Reyes, Jr., a joyful Latino recently elected New York City Community Garden Coalition's President, beamed while listening to Merle. “An important part of community gardening is involving the elders,” he said. “It’s all about pollinating minds! Planting seeds!"


"Community gardens grow community.”



Ray Figueroa-Reyes, Jr., is New York 
City Community Garden Coalition's 
President and recipient of the 
Earth Day Environmental
 Advocate of the 
Year Award presented by the 
Natural Resources Defense Council. 
He grew up in the barrio in East Harlem 
and developed an interest in plants 
watching his dad germinate avocado seeds 
in the window of their apartment.  
This statement reverberated around our circle. Community gardens don’t just plant the ingredients of future meals, Ray continued. “Our youth are stressed.  They respond to nature.”

Ray showed a slide presentation about Brook Park Community garden, located at the northernmost tip of the South Bronx in the Mott Haven neighborhood.  Photos showed students taking an inventory of the problems the neighborhood faces: Truck exhaust, particulates from heating fuel, violence, diabetes, asthma, lack of access to healthy food.  They identified vacant lots as resources.  And Christmas trees.  They collected the trees and ground them up and used them as the base for new gardens.  They tore up asphalt on a City-owned lot to expose soil, and added wood chips, compost, layered in newspaper for carbon, and added clean soil on top.

Now this garden has lettuce, cabbage, kale, eggplants, peppers string beans, collard greens, tomatoes, and sunflowers.  The kids work there in groups on weekends. Like Roots & Wings Kitchen Garden, they make their harvest available to the gardeners and to a local food pantry. 

Ray told us about the role that community gardens play in reducing heat island effect and acting as sponges to mitigate storm water runoff problems. But he emphasized the inner transformation that also happens. This year, some of his gardeners spoke at a “Youth Go Green” conference. Some of the kids who did the surveys are now working for Ray for pay.  One of his kids said he did really well on the Regents because the garden taught him about nitrogen and carbon and cat-ion exchange capacity.  Ray described a painfully shy kid who found her calling in the garden, and was out there getting people to sign a petition to the community board for additional garden space. 

Yes, right now food is plentiful in Dobbs Ferry. But opportunities to build community, nurture social responsibility and grow connections to nature might not be as available. Our small circle buzzed with big ideas to involve school children and local elders in Roots & Wings’ Kitchen Garden, as well as start a larger Dobbs Ferry Community Garden.

Ray advised:  “Start small.  Mother Earth will do her thing.”


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