The word “urban” typically brings up visuals of high-rise buildings, traffic and fast-paced lunch breaks – not a spring morning spent harvesting tomatoes from a garden. But “urban gardening,” a growing trend across the country is, perhaps, changing the scope of what “urban” really means. The word may soon connote the concept of sharing and using space wisely.
The downtown green-thumbs’ motivation behind these gardens are as diverse as their demographics; saving money, learning a new skill, spending time outside, helping the environment, fighting hunger, increasing food security or reducing the environmental impact of large-scale farming practices are but a few reasons to get your hands dirty.
There’s also a deep satisfaction in growing your own food, perhaps best experienced by the first spring salad or sun-warmed, juicy tomato. For those who are interested in taking a first step toward homegrown food, they can go at it alone in their backyards or join their local community garden.
Community gardens have been sprouting up in otherwise barren plots all over San Antonio as neighbors band together to create a public space, grow food and socialize.
Creating a community garden is a low-cost way for residents to solve the problem of food deserts – an area with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. According to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas, most of San Antonio inside Loop 410 lacks easy access to a grocery store.
The USDA Food Access map to the right shows census tracks in San Antonio that are both low income and “low access” – more than one mile to the nearest grocery store. This was the old measure used to define a “food desert.”
Most of San Antonio inside Loop 410 has low food access since the definition considers a “food desert” to be more than a half mile from the nearest grocery store (see map below). A click on each census track while viewing this map at ers.usda.gov, reveals what percentage of residents don’t own their own vehicle. These figures vary, but further demonstrate limited access to fresh food sources.
A guiding force behind the community garden movement in San Antonio is Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas (Green Spaces), a local non-profit that has helped guide and fund 34 community gardens since 2007 (View the locations of Green Spaces affiliated gardens here).
“San Antonio’s (urban development) is less dense than other (cities),” said Angela Hartsell, Community Gardens Program Manager. “There are a lot of vacant, open lots throughout the city, so there’s a lot of opportunity in our city to do community gardening.”
Green Spaces serves as a catalyst that provides the resources necessary to establish a community garden, said Hartsell.
While community gardens are often groups of neighbors, several non-profits have established initiatives to improve lives in their community. The International Community Garden, 4242 Bluemell behind St. Francis Episcopal Church, was founded in January 2011 as a consortium of four church groups (Catholic Charities, First Baptist, University United Methodist, and St. Francis Episcopal) to provide gardens to refugees from Bhutan and Burma.
“The refugees tend to stay in their apartments unless there is an activity outside for them,” said Bob Hooper, garden steward at the International Community Garden. “More than the food production that comes out of it, it’s an activity that allows the refugees to integrate into the South Texas way of life.”
The garden has 51, 10-foot square raised beds. A family can rent a plot for $30 a year and there are 20 families on the waiting list. The garden provides the seeds and soil and on set work days (Saturday 9am-12pm, Tuesdays and Thursday 6-7:30pm) provides water and tools.
One of the first gardens that Green Spaces helped start was Jardin de la Esperanza, part of San Antonio Time Dollar Community Connections at 2806 West Salinas. The garden uses its two raised beds to build community, educate in environmental stewardship, and teach use of flowers and herbs for medicinal purposes, said Siblia Esparza, executive director of the volunteer exchange non-profit.
Education has been a focus of the garden, both for adults and for children. The garden holds a series of classes in spring and fall and provides 4×4 foot square foot gardening frames and soil to community members who want to grow their own food at home. Local residents have received about 30 square foot gardening frames and 10 table top frames for seniors or those who can’t bend and stoop. For children in the community, the nonprofit runs a nine-week summer program that includes a junior master gardener curriculum.
Community gardens are a way to take over a vacant lot filled with trash and transform it into a public space people can be proud of. The site of Little Patch Garden at 405 North Main Ave. is hemmed by roads, a parking lot and is near the downtown Greyhound bus station.
The vision for Little Patch is to create a great community space said Ethan Jones, a Geekdom member who volunteers at Little Patch. The garden plan divides the space into areas for tables and benches, a flower garden, a vegetable garden, and a shade wall with trees and vines. Thanks to the technical prowess of Geekdom members, there are plans to install solar panels to light the garden at night, wireless water sensors to tweet when the plants are thirsty and a web-based dashboard.
“People stop by every work day and thank us for cleaning up this dumping ground. It makes people feel happy that people are putting time into making their neighborhood nicer,” said Jones. “I’m from San Antonio and there’s so much going on that it kind of seems lazy to complain and not do anything when so many people willing to help out.”
If you’d like to start your own community garden, first find a lot within a mile of where you live so that you can gather a committed group of your neighbors who want to participate.
“We focus on making sure that the community group is solid, has good leadership, and then we help with setting up the garden,” said Harsell.
The group needs to decide who will commit what resources. She recommends setting up tasks leaders for the many kinds of gardening chores: bed building, composting, starting seedling, maintaining tools, and other building projects. Community gardens work best when there is a public space for people to spend time, such as a pagoda or a park bench.
Hartsell offered advice for those looking to start a new community garden:
Find a vacant space within a mile of where you live so that a group of at least 8 neighbors want to participate.
- Identify the owner of the lot. Green Spaces can help with the search for the owner of the lot and for determining if there is any heavy metal contamination on the lot.
- Make sure there’s water. As long as the water main goes to the property, a tap can be put on the plot. Green Spaces can assist with learning if and where a water line passes under the parcel.
- Design the garden to maximize productivity and create the ideal environment for community use. Green Spaces can assist with the design, which helps the community group set the budget for the garden. At this stage groups can apply to Green Spaces for funding or get sponsorship from the community.
- Before planting, rid the area of Bermuda grass through solarization, laying down clear plastic in order to cook the grass roots and the weed seeds.
- Once the site is clear, Green Spaces can help with materials, such as raised bed boxes, soil, seeds, seedlings, tools, and even sheds, benches, picnic tables, and bird houses.
- Grow, harvest, enjoy, repeat.
Learn about community gardens in your neighborhood:
Olmos Park Terrace
Landa (Monte Vista)
Southtown (and Facebook)
Roots of Change (East side)
Gardens of St. Therese (Woodlawn Lake)
High Country Community Garden Blog
Beacon Hill (and on Facebook)
Diabetes Education Garden
Catherine Meyrat is a strategy and business plan consultant. You can view more information about her professional experience on LinkedIn. You can follow her on Twitter at @cmeyrat. Catherine blogs about gardening, cooking what she grows, and other South Texas adventures at seedtogarden.com.