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Green thumbs up: interest in community gardens sprouting all across America.

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First Lady Michelle Obama and about two dozen local students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C., made national headlines in March when they broke ground for an 1,100-square-foot organic "kitchen garden" on the south lawn of the White House. The garden will grow spring vegetables for the White House and Miriam's Kitchen, an organization that serves homeless people in the District of Columbia.

Although the garden will provide food for the first family, Mrs. Obama says that its most important role will be to educate children about healthy, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become national health concerns. This kitchen garden is the first vegetable garden at the White House since First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted her victory garden during World War II. The garden contains 55 varieties of plants; predominantly vegetables.

In February, to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA would convert a 1,250-square-foot section of pavement at its headquarters into a "People's Garden." The name derives from USDA having been created during Lincoln's presidency, which he often referred to as "The People's Department."

The original USDA community garden project envisioned using Embassy window boxes, tree planting and field office plots designed to promote "going green" by retaining water and reducing runoff; using roof gardens for energy efficiency; and using native plants and sound conservation practices.

On April 22 (Earth Day), Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA would expand its original garden concept to include the grounds of USDA's Jamie L. Whitten Headquarters Building, which fronts The National Mall. The first phase of the garden is called the "Three Sisters" Garden, in reference to the Native American tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mound. The planting method is a centuries-old, sustainable process that has provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations of American Indians.

The garden will also include raised organic vegetable beds, organic transition plots, an organic urban container garden, an organic kitchen pollinator garden, rain gardens and a bat house. USDA is planning to have the garden fully certified organic within three years.

The vegetable garden is expected to provide a large variety and amount of produce, which USDA plans to donate to a local food bank.

Co-op concept extends to gardening

Even before the First Lady announced plans for her garden, interest in community gardening was on the rise. Ecological and food safety concerns and the recession have contributed to this renewed interest.

Some co-ops and quasi-cooperative organizations are promoting community gardens. A number of co-op food stores have started community gardens for their members. For example, the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, which operates co-op food stores in several New Hampshire communities, started a community garden adjacent to the Norwich Farmers Market. Member-gardeners must attend orientation meetings and agree to use only organic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers on their plots.

Buffalo, N.Y, is home to Urban Roots, a cooperatively owned retail gardening center that offers plants and plant-related supplies. "We know that keeping local dollars in the immediate area benefits all of us," says Blair Woods of Urban Roots. "Our vision is of Urban Roots becoming a replicable model for cooperative garden centers in other urban areas."

Community gardens are springing up nationwide as communities transform vacant lots into green spaces. According to the National Gardening Association, 1 million households participated in community gardens in 2008. Even more impressive is that an estimated 5 million households are extremely, or very, interested in having a garden plot in a community garden located near their home.

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Gardens are being sponsored by colleges and universities, municipalities, community-development organizations, nonprofits and civic and faith-based organizations.

Community gardens are also being supported by Cooperative Extension services, volunteers and public and private funding sources. Some gardens operate by charging a fee for residents to reserve their plot; other gardens let residents use them for free but request that they donate their extra produce back to local food banks.

The make-up of community gardens varies, depending on the needs and goals of the groups that create them. They can be designed to grow flowers or fruits and vegetables, and laid out as single community plot or as many individual plots. They can be sited on vacant lots, schoolyards, church or hospital grounds, or in almost any neighborhood with some open space. Some community gardens are designed as a series of plots dedicated to "urban agriculture" where the produce is grown for the market.

Numerous benefits

According to the American Community Gardening Association, community gardens provide numerous benefits, which include: improving the quality of life for people who participate in the garden; providing a catalyst for neighborhood and community development; stimulating social interaction, encouraging self-reliance; beautifying neighborhoods; producing nutritious food and reducing family food expense. Other benefits include: conserving resources; creating opportunity for recreation, exercise, therapy and education; reducing crime, preserving green space; creating income opportunities and economic development; reducing city heat from streets and parking lots, and providing opportunities for intergenerational and cross-cultural connections.

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The American Community Gardening Association estimates that there are 18,000 community gardens in the United States and Canada.

USDA supports community garden projects in a variety of ways, including grants provided through the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), direct onsite technical assistance and guidance from Extension Service representatives, and guides developed by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and USDA Food and Nutrition Service to help community gardeners improve their production techniques.

To learn more about the USDA People's Garden, visit http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/?navid=PEOPLES GARDE N. Tips on starting or joining a community garden project are included in USDA's "We Can" publication at http://www.fns.usda.gov/fsec/FILES/wecan.pdf Or, visit the American Community Gardening Association website at http://www.communitygarden.org. To learn about starting a cooperative, visit: http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/rbs/coops /csdir.htm.

Editor's note: compiledfrom Internet and other sources by Anne Todd.
COPYRIGHT 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Business - Cooperative Service
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Todd, Anne
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Date:May 1, 2009
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