Monday, September 23, 2019

How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Last year Southside Community Center planted a community garden. They grew and harvested strawberries and cabbage.
Strawberry harvest from Southside Community Garden
Access to fresh fruits and vegetables from your own garden can be a seasonal bonus. Growing your own food isn’t new, and gardening as an American pastime has varied in popularity. As we slide into fall, here’s a snapshot of American home gardens over the last two hundred years.

At first, early settlers planted gardens at home for survival. Their gardens supplied most of their fresh fruit and vegetable needs. During the 1800s, storing and preserving methods improved, and more shops and food markets came into business. The reasons why people gardened and what they grew now changed. Having a garden at home became less critical, and growing flowers became popular. By the end of the 1800s, more gardeners grew decorative and ornamental plants than edible ones. 

American middle class home owners, heavily influenced by English landscape styles, started adding manicured lawns to the front of their homes. This moved food gardens to side or back yards. The image of a Victorian house and garden plan here from 1890s is a good example.

The house area is blue, and the food garden area is marked in pink. Foods  listed are currants, raspberries and grapes. These crops are hardly the kinds of food that would sustain a family. For many Americans, gardening became a hobby.

The early 20th century saw US citizens encouraged by the government to rethink this. During WWI, Americans were asked to step up and do their patriotic duty by preserving and growing their own food, again.

Later in WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked every American household to grow “victory” gardens to support the country's war efforts.
By 1943, close to 20 million home gardens flourished in the United States. Amazingly, these Victory gardens supplied almost half of the country's produce grown that year. Post wartime years returned better access to food, and many people became less interested in home gardening.

The 1970s brought renewed interest in gardening, directly inspired by the back-to-nature ecology movements. Concerns about chemical hazards prompted many gardeners to start using more organic gardening methods.

Today, reports indicate one-third of American households grow some sort of food crop. Living situations have changed over the last two hundred years, and finding spaces to garden today can be challenging. It’s not uncommon for people to grow edible plants in small spaces using containers and trellis supports. It's an opportunity to look at different kinds of gardens, like Southside’s community garden.

Community gardens, on private or public lands are defined as a single plot of land gardened collectively by a group of people. Like their name, these gardens provide a sense of community and connection to the neighborhood and to the environment, much like the garden at Elmira’s Southside Community Center. When asked what she thought the biggest impact the Center’s garden had on the kids, Director Cathleen Deery responded:

“…there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing something useful (especially edible!) that you’ve made yourself. Your success is obvious. I think that many of the Center’s kids especially need that sense of personal efficacy.
Southside Community Gardener at work
In 1979, the Star-Gazette featured an article on Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Chemung County, highlighting three community gardens. For more than one hundred years, CCE of Chemung County has offered classes to area farmers, local gardeners and interested hobbyists. Today, CCE's website lists over 10 community gardens located throughout Chemung County, along with helpful gardening advice:

One local company that started business in Elmira in 1880 as Jennings Seed Company on West Water Street provided seeds in small pouches like this to gardeners.
Small seed pouch
Renaming the company to Banfield-Jennings, they relocated to the Miracle Mile in Horseheads, where they continue to offer products and advice to gardeners with garden and lawn needs. 

Whether using containers, a backyard plot or being part of a community effort, what we grow in our gardens and the reasons we garden, differ. Few home gardens are planted for survival anymore. It just costs more in time and effort to grow our own food. We are lucky that food is widely available at local supermarkets, and food markets. Yet, we garden. An informal poll of nonprofessional gardeners by a large Midwest university found today’s gardeners rate exercise, beauty, and learning about plants and the food we eat as the top reasons they choose to garden. 

These proud gardeners from Southside Community Center reflect how gardening can be something to be proud of.
Proud Southside Community Center Gardeners

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