National Garden Month 2022
By Aronya Waller
Happy April! We are welcoming spring; this means starting our gardens for the year for some of us. It is apropos then that April is National Community Garden Month. Community gardens are community-managed spaces in urban, suburban, or rural areas. It can be a single community plot or many smaller plots used to grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers. These gardens benefit the people who are actively involved and their surrounding neighborhoods. Community gardens positively impact food and environmental justice efforts within BIPOC communities. These gardens help fight racial disparities and inequities by providing gardening spaces, regardless of economic status. They provide fresh, healthy, culturally-appropriate food options and reduce the food bills for the growers, and the food grown is distributed to community members.
In addition to growing the food, many community gardens provide a variety of educational workshops and cultural programming. Successful community gardens can connect diverse groups of people who work together to build food security. According to the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), community gardens are “serving as a catalyst for environmental justice with equitable community development and improvement without gentrification, through reducing crime, creating green infrastructure, preserving open space, and beautifying neighborhoods.” These objectives are the core of mutual aid, a community-based strategy for collective survival and political action. Mutual aid gained widespread popularity during the pandemic, but many BIPOC communities and social movements have used it for decades.
I have had the opportunity to work with community gardens, and each year I am amazed at what we produce. I am currently a part of Las Parcelas, a Norris Square Neighborhood Project (NSNP) Community Garden. Last year, I had the opportunity to join after the Philadelphia Chapter of Veggie Mijas took over Organizer Estefania Orozco’s plot when she moved abroad. The first day I arrived was for clean-up and prep work, and I was in awe. I had never seen a more beautiful garden. There were murals, a casita, a bridge, affirmations, and most importantly, a sense of peace in my city.
NSNP was created by Iris Brown and Tomasita Romero from Grupo Motivos, an organization of Puerto Rican women co-founded by the two women. They made six gardens between 1980 and 2006. “Each of the six gardens represents and embodies the diversity of the Puerto Rican culture and West African diasporas in Philadelphia, according to NSNP.
- The Butterfly Garden – A place to sit and reflect. The butterfly bushes attract hundreds of butterflies.
- Las Parcelas – Can be considered a community garden and a small museum. It includes La Casita de Abuela, a replica of a small house in rural Puerto Rico filled with artifacts, an outdoor kitchen for workshops, and a mural in honor of the women of Grupo Motivos and local community members.
- El Batey – This garden is known for its Indigenous Taíno ceremonial plaza for spiritual rituals and games.
- Jardín de Paz – Another garden for peace and reflection. There is a pole in the garden’s center with “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in eight languages.
- Raíces – Created to build children’s interest in nature while providing a safe space to play and learn. There is a mural depicting the history of Puerto Rico and its people, including Taíno Natives, conquistadores, wildlife, and the people of today.
- Villa Africána Colobó – This garden portrays the West African diaspora within Puerto Rican culture and history. This garden is across the street from Las Parcelas, and it should be considered another community garden and small museum. There are three African huts filled with artifacts, a storytelling room, and an outdoor kitchen for cooking demonstrations.
Orozco also used “beautiful” to describe Las Parcelas, when referencing her whole experience. She started going to the garden in 2018 with her friend Rafael and helping him with his plot. She then was able to secure a plot with her partner in 2019. Her favorite part was intentionally growing various vegetables and herbs between her and Rafael’s plot. “It taught me the true meaning of community and collaboration,” Orozco said. They were even able to share the bounty with their friends and family.
Being a part of Las Parcelas has helped Orozco learn and grow. “I experienced many happy moments learning to grow and harvest my own food as well as connecting to nature which ultimately also helped me get through some tough times,” she explained. “I learned to trust my instincts and tend to my plot by simply being present and listening to its needs.”
Community gardens provide safe spaces—physically and mentally. Many people did not realize how much a community garden could impact you mentally until the pandemic began. “During a time in our life where we were forced to isolate, the relief I felt there was extremely helpful in navigating the many fears that came up for me,” Orozco described. Not only did she realize how much of a safe space this was for us and how necessary community gardens are for the community, but she had an even deeper appreciation and respect for the land.
Las Parcelas became a place for Orozco to connect to her community and herself in a much deeper way than she ever imagined. “The peace I feel when there, the sense of autonomy to know exactly what I was growing and how, the inspiration to try new recipes, and the ability to share my harvest with family and friends is a lesson I’ll never forget,” Orozco explained. “After moving abroad at the end of 2020, I was able to pass my plot over to the Philly chapter of Veggie Mijas. It was truly a beautiful full-circle moment to see another beloved community of mine able to use the space to come together.”
It was so much more empowering to work at Las Parcelas during the pandemic. I share opinions with Orozco about Las Parcelas and community gardens. As I previously mentioned, I had a sense of peace—I found my safe space. Las Parcelas gave me a moment to connect with members of my chapter and the surrounding community. We all shared our harvest because we understood that certain seeds grew better in different plots. I consider myself to have an olive thumb, not quite brown but definitely not green. So, I was astonished to see how our vegetables and herbs grew. I did not always get it right, but I knew in some way I was reconnecting with my ancestral roots with each seed I planted, every time I watered, and with each piece harvested.
I felt happiness when I could bring herbs and vegetables to my family and neighbors and when the chapter passed out the final harvest for the year to the neighborhood. However, of all the things, there were two times when I felt pure joy. First, whenever I saw our plot neighbor bring her little girls with her to garden. They could not have been in elementary school yet, but they already seemed to know so much about gardening. The second was when my mom and I brought my niece to the garden. She had only turned three, but I understood the look on her face when she walked in. It was the same look I had when I took my first step into Las Parcelas. It was not lost on me that we had three generations in our community garden. I promised her I would take her again this year, and I hope that as she grows, she understands that beauty of the garden is not just what we see. The true beauty of Las Parcelas, NSNP, and all our community gardens is the impact of uplifting our communities.
If you are interested in participating in a community garden in your area, consider using the ACGA’s search tool.