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Community gardens are a victory

“I’m a big believer in community gardens, both because of their beauty and for their access to providing fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across this nation …”

— First Lady Michelle Obama, Feb. 19, 2009

The First Lady made these remarks to members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and later that spring she planted an 1,100-square-foot kitchen garden on the White House front lawn to advocate for healthful, locally grown produce.

Michelle Obama was the first to plant a garden at the White House since Eleonore Roosevelt planted a “victory garden” during World War II. (See a photo of a victory garden poster on my blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener)

In fact, “war gardens,” as victory gardens were sometimes called, and today’s community gardens have a lot in common: They’ve provided fresh fruits and vegetables to neighborhood residents who might not have access to them otherwise, and they have helped to raise morale and a feeling of empowerment among gardeners.

Here in Jackson County, we have 15 community gardens managed by garden members or city staff, as well as 10 community gardens at apartment complexes managed by the Housing Authority and several Food Share gardens run by ACCESS. The goal of each of these modern-day “victory” gardens is to provide local folks with a sense of food security, which, today, means not only having enough healthful food to eat, but also knowing where our food comes from and how it’s grown.

The Jackson County Master Gardener Association has supported community gardens for the past five years through its annual grant program. The group is currently accepting applications through Feb. 26 for grants of up to $1,500 for new and established community gardens. More information and the grant application are available at www.jacksoncountymga.org.

Mary Foster, head of the Community Garden Network for JCMGA, said in addition to funding for community gardens, the group offers hands-on information to grant recipients about growing plants successfully in our area. Ten community gardens have received grants so far; this year’s recipients will be notified March 7.

Mary knows how important it is for community garden managers to have support. In 2004, Foster and several teenagers from the county shelter built a community garden at Blue Heron Park in Phoenix. They worked, literally, from the bottom up, bringing in soil and building 20 20-by-20-foot plots. Today, the community garden is still “growing” strong, with wheelchair-accessible plots and a children’s area, featuring a pizza garden, butterfly garden and a bean teepee.

Last year, the brand new Union Park Community Garden in west Medford received almost $1,000 from JCMGA. The garden is part of the West Side Beautification project, a nonprofit organization led by neighborhood resident Randi Brock. The group removes graffiti, sponsors neighborhood cleanup days, and manages the community garden at Union Park. Brock said grant money helped pay for the garden’s drip irrigation system, which will be installed before spring planting this year with help from Nan King, who develops the ACCESS Food Share Gardens.

Once known as the city’s drug park, Union Park became the project of West Side Beautification when the community garden opened last April. Then, in June, a gardener was assaulted by two men while tending tomatoes in the garden. One of his assailants was convicted of attempted murder and is serving 17 years in prison.

Despite such disturbing setbacks in the battle against gang- and drug-related crime in west Medford, Brock said the 28-plot community garden has continued to draw individuals and families who are taking back their neighborhood one garden at a time.

“There are some awesome gardeners who are out there growing winter vegetables, too,” Brock said.

That’s what I call a modern-day victory garden!

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.