Miles Medina was wandering around the Florida International University campus after class one day in 2011 when he stumbled across a group of students caring for vegetables, herbs and fruit groves on a beautiful 2-acre organic garden. They invited him to try his hand at grafting avocado trees.
“They took me under their wing, showed me how to do the grafting, and then later on I planted some seeds,” recalls Medina, 32, a Miami native who was dabbling in non- degree ecology classes after discovering he wasn’t happy with his fledgling business career. “I think it was the first time in my life I’d ever planted anything. And I really fell in love with it.”
So much, in fact, that he volunteered to help maintain the crops and enrolled in the university’s agroecology graduate program. Impressed with his determination, his instructors asked him to manage the garden, where he oversaw plant experiments, helped local schools and churches plant their own gardens, and hosted kindergarteners and youngsters from underserved neighborhoods, many of whom had never seen a garden before. And he found his true calling: After graduating recently with a master’s degree in environmental science, Medina committed to a career in agriculture and farming, hoping to one day start his own business.
The student-run FIU garden is one of more than 2,000 People’s Gardens across the U.S. Launched in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program began as a way to challenge employees to plant gardens at USDA facilities and now partners with 1,300 organizations, from schools to extension agencies. People’s Gardens vary in size, but all must meet three requirements: They must benefit the community by providing recreation or donating produce; they must be created and maintained by local residents; and they must use sustainable practices such as composting, capturing rainwater and cultivating native plants. All fruits and vegetables grown on USDA-owned property must be given to those in need.
People’s Gardens have been instrumental in bringing the simple act of gardening to a wide array of Americans. In Colorado, residents of two low-income Denver Housing Authority sites—a family complex and a home for seniors and people with disabilities—tend a People’s Garden brimming with beans, squash and other veggies. The harvest is used at a nonprofit restaurant run by low- income youth ages 16 to 21. Last year in Louisville, Ky., young people determined to revitalize their neighborhood raised 1,500 pounds of fruits and vegetables to feed the hungry. And in Iowa, master gardeners, parents and teachers show Hiawatha Elementary School students how to grow cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas and other edible plants.
Gardening connects children with the earth and shows them where their food comes from, notes Christine Coker, a research horticulturist at Mississippi State University who oversees more than 20 school-based, K-6 community gardens, including seven People’s Gardens, in coastal Mississippi.
“They learn a sense of respect for the environment as well as a sense of responsibility for something greater than themselves,” she says. “There’s also a great deal of excitement when students put something in the ground and then get to watch it grow.”
The same holds true for adults like Medina. “There is gratification in working outside, using your hands,” he says. “It’s kind of magical that this tiny little seed turns into a plant. That’s really cool to see.”
Fun Fact: “Abraham Lincoln” is an heirloom variety of tomato introduced in 1923 by the W. H. Buckbee Seed Company of Rockford, Ill. It was named in honor of President Lincoln, who signed the law establishing an independent Department of Agriculture in 1862. Seeds of the “Abraham Lincoln” tomato were grown in the USDA’s People’s Gardens all over the country in 2012.
Click below for three delicious garden to table recipes!