Cultivating cooperation: Community gardens flourish in Eastern Iowa

'I've seen gardens heal communities'

William Hill, 2, of Cedar Rapids, breaks up a bunch of soil while his family and other community members help to build the Mound View Community Garden on B Ave. N.E., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday, June 3, 2012. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)
William Hill, 2, of Cedar Rapids, breaks up a bunch of soil while his family and other community members help to build the Mound View Community Garden on B Ave. N.E., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday, June 3, 2012. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)

Employees in the University of Iowa’s International Programs department bond over vegetables.

Specifically, over the vegetables they’re growing together in a plot at Earth Source Gardens, a community garden run by the New Pioneer Co-Op and Harvest Farm and Preserve in Iowa City.

“I like that I get to interact with my co-workers in a more personal way. It’s social,” says study abroad adviser and program coordinator Amy Bowes. “I think if I were doing it by myself, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

She and about 10 others in the department are part of a growing movement of community gardeners. Plots of vegetables affiliated with churches, schools, non-profits, businesses and municipalities are springing up around the state and the country with increasing frequency.

According to an April report from the National Gardening Association, a non-profit that promotes gardening, 35 percent of all American households are growing food either at home or in a community garden. That’s a 17 percent increase from five years ago. Among millennials, ages 18 to 34, the report found gardening is up 63 percent since 2008.

Much of that growth comes from community gardens — where the report found participation is up a whopping 200 percent since 2008.

Locally, garden advocates have noticed the increase.

Gazette columnist Lisa Slattery is a member of the Iowa State University Linn County Extension Master Gardeners. She says the group has received so many requests for help from people and organizations who want to start a community or school garden they recently formed a committee specifically to help those growers.

“I think the garden has left the farm and invaded the cities now. People are gardening for pleasure and food and environmental stewardship,” she says.

Community gardeners across the Corridor cited a host of motivations to grow.

For Bowes, benefits include access to fresh food and the chance to learn new skills.

“I’ve never actually succeeded at growing anything on my own. This is my first experience helping with a successful garden,” she says.

Cultivating service

An oft-repeated refrain among gardeners who spoke to The Gazette for this article was a desire to know exactly where their food comes from. Gardens pair nicely with the increasing popularity of organic and local produce.

But fresh produce often is in short supply for area food banks. That’s what motivates one group of burgeoning garden hosts — local churches.

An increasing number are growing gardens to provide food and fellowship to donate. For them, it’s all about service.

Tim Dohrmann refers to himself as a “garden geezer,” and helps run the gardening efforts at Christ Church Presbyterian in Cedar Rapids. Last year, the church donated more than a ton of food from two gardens to local food banks.

“It’s like the great commission — we are here to be disciples. We see a need, and that’s how we take care of it,” he says. “They’re getting the goodness out of those vegetables.”

Christ Church Presbyterian is far from alone.

Along with a number of independent gardening efforts, the organization Feed Iowa First, started by Sonia Kendrick in 2011, works with several area churches and businesses to grow food on their land. In 2013, Feed Iowa First gardens donated about 12,000 pounds of food to organizations such as Meals on Wheels and HACAP.

Service isn’t the only motivator behind many gardens. Christ Church Presbyterian recently added a new garden to its efforts — they’re working with Hy-Vee and Cleveland Elementary School to grow a garden for kids.

Planting Seeds

Hiawatha Elementary teacher Julie Bradley helped organize a garden at her school in 2011.

A compost club, a salad day to enjoy the spring crop of lettuce, spinach and chard and the chance to take home vegetables they grow keeps kids engaged, Bradley says. Organizers keep the garden going over the summer with a club of about 20 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who come out to learn about gardening and help tend the vegetables.

“The kids just love it. Most of them have never seen these vegetables growing in real life,” she says. “I know how powerful it can be to get your hands in the dirt and know where your food came from.”

Slattery says she thinks involving kids in the process increases their excitement and willingness to try vegetable-laden food.

“If they pick a carrot out of a garden, they’re more inclined to eat it,” she says.

For Scott Koepke, who runs the Soilmates Organic Garden Education Program at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, community and school gardens are about food security and community-building alike.

“I know it sounds cliche, but I’m trying to grow more than just food in these gardens. We’re also growing life skills, especially nurturance,” he says. “I’ve seen gardens heal communities.”

Koepke partners with more than 30 gardens around the Iowa City area, including at schools and at public institutions like the Iowa City Public Library, which has demonstration beds on the downtown Pedestrian Mall.

“Both public and private interests are coming together more and more to rediscover common ground in the garden,” he says.

For all the expansion of garden efforts, he says there’s still room to grow.

“We need to re-imagine creative, healthier uses of urban green space,” he says. “The potential for edible landscaping has barely been tapped.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.