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vegetables.jpgSallie 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 decade. 

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 South office.

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 University. 

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 recent years.

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 successful plan.

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 grant.”

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 time.

“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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