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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

Community Gardens Taking Root Across South Jersey: Every garden initiative shares a common thread: the community creates the garden, but the garden in turn creates a deeper, strengthened sense of community.

May 31, 2017 02:16PM ● By Mica McCullough

An unsightly vacant lot by the railroad tracks in Hammonton and an abandoned garage in Collingswood have something in common: these and other previously unused plots of land all over South Jersey are getting a vibrant new lease on life as community gardens. Many were started as ways to earn Sustainable Jersey certification points through a town’s Green Committee, but these areas have since taken on a life of their own.

Sustainable Monroe Township will begin breaking ground in a few months for its community garden’s inaugural season. Located on municipal land near the Free Public Library of Monroe Township, it’ll culminate years of effort and cooperation. “Our first season will be this spring; we’re starting with approximately 18 committed gardeners and 24 garden plots. Over the winter, we covered the plot areas with cardboard to kill the grass, so we will be ready to turn over the soil once spring arrives,” attests Patrick McDevitt, chair of Sustainable Monroe Township. “We’re just getting started!”

Before the Hammonton Community Garden was created in 2015, a vacant lot was visible on the south side of the railroad tracks, beyond the parking lot of the New Jersey Transit station in town. It’s now bursting with color, activity and life from April through October.

“We worked with the town of Hammonton, initially thinking of creating a town-wide composting facility; when we saw the lot, though, we instantly thought ‘community garden’,” shares Green Committee member and former town Councilman Dan Bachalis. Former Green Committee Chair, Amy Menzel, added, “It was an idea that had been in consideration for many years, but we began finalizing the location, testing the soil through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and pursuing support in town in late 2014, early 2015.”

By working with the town of Hammonton, the Green Committee secured a vacant half-acre parcel of town-owned land, which continues to serve its original purpose of wood chip and mulch storage; the aroma of pines fills the air when the town’s Christmas trees get mulched into large piles on the property. The garden received a three-year grant for supplies from AtlantiCare, that also donated a large sign to improve the garden’s visibility. Other local businesses also donated or assisted, including coffee-ground compost donations from the local coffee shop, garden supply donations from Town Council and volunteer participation from surrounding universities and high schools. In its first year, Hammonton boasted 18 garden plots and as many gardeners; the next year, the garden population doubled, and they expect to add 10 additional plots this year due to the growing demand to grow one’s own food.

The Collingswood Community Garden is relatively well established, having been founded in 2009. Its inception led to the creation of the “Collingswood Community Gardens” movement, which develops borough-owned spaces into gardens. The Borough acquired an additional parcel of land in 2015, essentially doubling the available garden space for Collingswood residents and non-residents alike. Gardeners are encouraged to grow any kind of produce, herb or flower as long as it adheres to their strict rule of being organic, using zero pesticides, herbicides or other synthetic chemical substances.

Community gardens also serve the purpose of boosting a sense of camaraderie between towns; when planning their respective gardens, both Monroe Township and Hammonton gardeners approached surrounding gardens for advice, support, and guidance. People involved in these community gardens cooperate with one another, promoting and attending other gardens’ events, and even offering solutions and remedies for typical garden pests. This togetherness has helped more than a few friendships blossom, and is no doubt laying the groundwork for future sustainability, conservation and environmental programs in the area.

Since this movement is primarily focused on building and maintaining a sense of community, many gardens offer programs, events and workshops for the general public. The leadership of the Monroe Township Garden has future plans to offer Solstice celebrations, potlucks, yoga and other events in their garden space. In Hammonton, the garden hosts a community potluck at the beginning and the end of the growing season along with a series of free Children’s Garden Workshops in the summer, and monthly educational Garden Talks on various subjects like fermenting hot sauces, growing hops for beer, and canning and preserving garden goodies. Many of these events are free of charge, and they are a great way to get to know community members, learn something new and get outside.

Some of South Jersey’s Community Gardens are well established, while others are just breaking ground. However, every garden initiative shares a common thread: the community creates the garden, but the garden in turn creates a deeper, strengthened sense of community. It’s almost time to welcome spring—and the growing season—to New Jersey, the Community Garden State. 

To find a community garden contact your local township or garden club. Online resources can also be found at CommunityGarden.org

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