Sallie Lee has introduced the medical practice of triage in
her work as an Alabama Extension urban regional agent specializing in home
grounds and gardening.
Lee has learned that she must strictly prioritize her time
to serve a growing number of clients. She is forced to say no a lot more often
than she has in the past — no to more mundane tasks so that she can focus on
the bigger issue at hand: meeting the voracious demand for community gardens.
She is not alone.
Most Extension agents have noted the same spike in interest within the last
A Transformation in the Making
Actually, transformation may be a more accurate term for describing
how landscapes in rural and, more recently, urban landscapes are changing in
response to this trend.
What’s contributing to this transformation? Lee perceives a number of factors, some
economic, others cultural and social. She
says one of the biggest factors is the desire among a growing number of people to
gain some measure of control over their lives in a world that they perceive as
spinning too fast, if not out of control.
“I encounter a lot of people, particularly older people, who
feel as if they’ve lost control over most aspects of their lives, and they want
to reassert control,” Lee observes. “And
locally grown food really satisfies this drive. It not only provides them a
measure of control but also a sense of personal attachment and connectedness.”
In a unique way, Lee’s own life parallels this newfound
interest in gardening. She grew up on a family
farm in Virginia that raised most of what they ate, everything from fruits and vegetables
to milk and other dairy products. But
after a childhood spent laboring under the blistering summer sun, she was happy
to spend most of her professional career working in an air-conditioned Bell
As is often the case, though, she eventually felt the pull
back to her agrarian roots. After
retirement, she started taking community college courses in horticulture and
then completed her master’s in environmental management from Samford
Back to Her Roots
From there, she says, it was an easy transition back to her
roots, working as an Extension home ground and gardening agent.
Lee’s fellow Extension agent, Bethany O’Rear, a Blount
County native, shares a similar background, though in her case, she never let
go of these agrarian roots. She and her
family raised much of what they ate, which included fruits, vegetables and
livestock, while her Dad focused on row crops.
Eventually the family expanded their operation into a
full-fledged truck farming enterprise, which Bethany and her sister used to finance
their college education.
After 10 years in the commercial landscaping business, O’Rear
still felt that strong affinity for growing produce. That led her to a career
as an Extension home gardening agent.
Like Lee, she is spending an increasing amount of her time helping city
officials, community activists and schools, establish community gardens,
particularly in urban settings.
In fact, O’Rear notes that this urban passion for community
gardening is one of the most remarkable phenomena associated with this trend in
A Spillover Effect from Rural Locations
She discerns a spillover effect from rural locations. Urban residents are not only impressed with
the gardening revival in suburbs and exurbs. They’re also beginning to see how
far removed they are from fresh fruits and vegetables — foods that are not only
fresh but also safe to eat.
“Many inner-city communities are beginning to see just how
many food deserts there are across Alabama — places where food conceivably could
be grown but isn’t,” she says, adding that for many inner-city residents, fast-food
restaurants are all that is available within walking distance.
But O’Rear and Lee both caution prospective community gardeners
that starting a garden isn’t simply a matter of finding a patch of land and
applying a tiller and seed.
Prospective gardeners must answer a host of questions. And the first one should be whether this
effort is sustainable over the long haul.
“You can have all the funding the world, but if you don’t
have goals — and, equally important, if you don’t work toward these goals — you
lack a sustainable plan,” O’Rear says. “And if you lack such a plan, you’re not
going to go very far.”
O’Rear and Lee recently held a daylong workshop at the
Birmingham Botanical Gardens to guide community gardeners and prospective gardeners
through these critical steps. The
workshop, titled “Ready, Set, Grow!” emphasized all the elements of a
Plan! Plan! Plan!
Mapping out a sustainable plan is only the first step among
many others. Money is also a critical
concern, especially when this involves securing grants from increasingly scarce
sources of government and private funding.
“One of the biggest priorities should be getting acquainted
with funders well in advance of applying for a grant,” says Dr. Bob Holmes, assistance
director of Education at Auburn University and an expert in securing grants. “The
last thing you want to do is to pay a visit the day before you submit your
On the other hand, grant seekers who take the time to
develop strong working relationships with funders and their policies well in
advance of applying for a grant can reap immense benefits, Holmes stresses.
“Some get to know these funders so well that they submit
their rough drafts well in advance for a critique of their concept and what
they can do to make the proposal stronger,” he says.
A Solid Cadre of Volunteers
Equally critical to the success of a community garden is
developing a solid and committed cadre of volunteers, especially in cases where
funding is in short supply.
“Volunteers offer many different skills,” says Taylor
Steele, volunteer coordinator at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. “Some have a
knack for teaching, some like to write and do administrative work.”
The important thing, Steele says, is to create conditions
and incentives that not only inspire and engage these volunteers but that also keep
them coming back, he says.
But as both Lee and O’Rear stressed time and again during the
workshop, success starts with drafting a coherent plan that stands the test of
“People have such wonderful dreams and thoughts, but if you
can’t get the people and resources together, it’s not going to be sustainable,”
Lee stresses. “And if it’s not sustainable, it’s not going to work.”
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