All around the region people are on their knees, digging and planting together in community gardens, but while it may look like they’re just trying to grow tomatoes or kale, they’re doing so much more than that.
Community gardeners are also building relationships, strengthening neighborhoods, empowering themselves and in some case, fortifying their connection to God, according to those who create them.
For example, in Lockport, a pair of churches have banded together to create a lush garden in a struggling neighborhood, helping city people and country people work together to create something beautiful.
“Our focus is to join churches together — city churches and suburban churches — to use community gardens as an outreach program,” said Richard Tedeschi, vice president of Imagine Community Gardens, the non-profit overseeing a community garden at 227 Washburn St. in Lockport.
The garden is tended by volunteers from The Chapel in Lockport and The Chapel at Crosspoint in Getzville. Neighbors have joined the effort and will reap the benefits. In addition, a portion of the garden has been set aside to feed the needy at community kitchens. The whole project has met its founders’ greatest expectations, Tedeschi said.
“It’s just people meeting people, sharing, having fun and growing vegetables — and often meeting people outside their sphere of influence,” he said. “That’s what is so exciting. It’s really fun to watch.”
Often, the gardens are being built on vacant and abandoned lots, bringing beauty and life to neglected eyesores.
In Niagara Falls, Greenprint Niagara, a non-profit created by Niagara University, is working to lease and insure vacant lots to help create more gardens.
“We’re looking for any organization, individual, business, block club, any kind of group looking to take on a community garden for any reasons,” said Tom Lowe, Greenprint chairman, who added that Greenprint is building a demonstration garden at 2102 Main St. in the Falls. “We’ll show five or six small versions of what you can do on a larger scale on a vacant lot of your own.”
Greenprint has assisted with the city’s newest garden at 907 Walnut in the Falls, built from a vacant double lot on a tidy street near Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. The garden is sponsored by the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.
“People ask me why an arts center would get involved with a community garden,” said Kathie Kudela, executive director of the NACC. “But, even if people can’t paint or draw, they can be an artist in the garden.”
The garden, crowned by a handmade arbor created by NACC master woodworker Victor Marwin, is a French-styled kitchen garden, with vegetable plots framed by landscaping and flowers.
“It’s drawing people together,” Kudela said of the garden, adding that those passing by are stopping to ask questions and that one women, driving by, was so inspired by the activity, she inquired about purchasing the neglected, abandoned house next door.
Over in Kenmore, at Knox Church, 2595 Elmwood Ave., the community garden is “in bloom and looks good,” said assistant pastor Shawn Dewey, who added there are still a few available spaces for anyone in the community who wants to try their hand at planting for a nominal garden rental fee.
The Knox garden, created last year, was built on a green space alongside the church, and “it was kind of cool to transform that into something that grows and provides,” he said.
New community gardens are being built all over the region. This spring, on Grand Island, John Drehs and his wife, Brigitte, have started a community garden behind the convenience store on Staley and Ransom roads, on land donated by the store’s owner. The Drehs moved to Grand Island from Oregon where they were participants in a community garden. They enjoyed the experience so much that John devoted much of his winter to starting one on the island, seeking donations and help from whoever he could find.
“I went around begging everyone on the island for donations,” he said, smiling adding that the garden is a work in progress, but has plenty of room to grow.
Those who wish to participate are asked to contribute a one-time fee of $30, which helps pay for garden maintenance. Currently there are about 50 registered gardeners, John added. There’s room for about 100 more.
Once some of the vegetables are ready to be picked, mid-July, the Drehs’ plan is to create a farmer’s market to sustain the garden, and to help make Grand Island an All American City through one of its sponsors, the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and WNY.
At its core, gardening is about health and wellness, and that idea blooms most significantly at St. James Church in Niagara Falls, where church members work alongside those who are battling mental health issues. Pastor Daryl Bennet hopes the garden, built in cooperation with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County, will help dispel the stigma of mental illness, which she says impacts one in four people, often with troubling depression or anxiety.
She and Pastor Mark Breese of Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier, are working together on the project, in hopes of teaching people that they don’t have to be ashamed of a mental health diagnosis. One way the pastors plan to do that is to gather mission and church people together so they can form relationships.
Bennet has a special interest in mental health issues and thought that creating a garden would help her parish to learn about and help battle the stigma of mental illness. “It’s a real community project where everyone works together for the common good,” she said.
Michele DeLuca is features editor at the Niagara Gazette. She can be reached at 282-2311, ext. 2263.
COMMUNITY GARDENS Kenmore • Knox Church Community Garden, 2595 Elmwood Ave., Kenmore. Call the church at 873-2423 or email email@example.com. Grand Island Grand Island Community Garden, Staley and Ransom roads. Visit www.grandislandcommunitygarden.com Niagara Falls • Boys and Girls Club Vegetable Garden/Presti Apartments, 1605 Ferry Ave. Call the club at 282-7181 • Highland Community Gardens, 1031 Garden Ave. and at the Henry J. Kalfas Elementary School, 1800 Beech Ave. Call the Highland Community Revitalization Committee at 282-2325. • NACC Community Garden, 907 Walnut St. Call the NACC at 282-7530. • Niagara Falls High School, 4455 Porter Rd. Herb, greens, and healing garden in memory of student lost to leukemia. Call the school at 278-5800. • St. James Gardens of Compassion Community Garden/Community Missions Garden, St. James United Methodist Church, 4661 Porter Rd. Call the church at 297-6421. Lockport • Washburn Street Garden, by Imagine Community Gardens, Inc. Visit www.imaginecommunitygardens.org Tonawanda • Tonawanda Community Peace Garden, Clinton Park, Seymour Street. Call Nancy Roland at 743-0564 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. ••• For more information on community gardens contact Natalie Cook, of Creating Healthy Spaces to Live Work and Play at the Cornell Cooperative Extension at 433-8839, ext. 243.