Wally Lech, 89, digs his spading fork under potato vines, lifts out clumps of red potatoes and tosses them into a cardboard box at the Denville Community Gardens in Denville, N.J. (pop. 15,824).
In nearby garden plots, Al Janosy, 62, inspects his corn crop while Cecilia Crim, 64, picks a ripe cherry tomato and pops it into her mouth.
"I grow a row of leeks because they're very expensive in the store," says Crim, who along with her husband, Dewain, 65, also grows beets, broccoli, string beans, strawberries, sunflowers and butternut squash.
Last year, the Crims and 150 other green thumbs each paid $5 to rent space in the garden, which was started in 1972 on about five acres of city-owned land. Interest in the garden has grown steadily. Last year, 25 new gardeners applied for a plot because of rising food prices, concerns about food safety and desires for healthier eating.
"Nobody ever gets turned away," says director Dennis Mahony, 68. "If we have more gardeners than land, then we make the plots smaller."
Gardeners sign up for plots in March, plant in April and May, and are expected to keep their gardens neatly maintained, which requires a commitment of at least four hours a week. Easy access to water has contributed to the productivity and success of the Denville gardens.
"People will only carry water for about a week," says Mahony, who along with other volunteers laid water pipes from the nearby Rockaway River to the gardens and installed water spigots every 50 feet. Four times a day, the water pump is switched on.
"Between 3 and 6 p.m. there won't be a soul here, but at 6:05 when the water is turned on, there will be 25 cars," Mahony says.
The gardeners often share gardening tips and produce since different people grow different crops, from asparagus to zucchini. Lech, a seasoned gardener, convinced many of them to scatter hair around their plants to discourage groundhogs and raccoons from raiding the gardens.
Devinder Lamba, 65, tending tidy rows of vines bulging with purple and white eggplants, shares his bounty with fellow gardeners and co-workers.
"I love gardening. It's the healthiest hobby you can have," says Lamba, who helped organize a picnic last year for the Denville gardeners.
A growing tradition
Throughout American history, the popularity of community gardens has fluctuated with the economic times. A community garden is any communal land where people garden. Some gardens are divided into individual plots like Denville's; others are worked collectively.
The community-gardening movement began in the United States during the economic depression of the 1890s when Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree convinced the city and private landowners to turn over vacant lots so unemployed residents could garden and feed their families. "Pingree's Potato Patches," as they were called, reaped other benefits for gardeners, including dignity and hope, while easing the city's welfare burden. Other cities soon followed with their own potato patches.
Americans planted school gardens to battle urban blight in the early 1900s, liberty gardens on idle land during World War I so farmers' crops could be shipped to Europe, relief gardens during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and victory gardens to boost morale and patriotism during World War II. High inflation rates in the 1970s spurred a revival in community gardening.
Today, about 18,000 community gardens are cultivated across the nation, and the number is growing.
"With people losing their houses and so many major financial challenges, one of the big things we can be doing as a nation right now is teaching folks how to take a 4-by-16-foot raised bed and feed themselves," says Bobby Wilson, 58, director of the American Community Gardening Association, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. The nonprofit organization supports community gardening through workshops, newsletters and networking.
Wilson oversees the Atlanta Urban Gardening Program's 250 community gardens, which serve seniors, public-housing residents and the unemployed. He helped start 25 new community gardens in Atlanta last summer.
"This is the biggest demand that I've seen in the 20 years since I've been doing community gardens," Wilson says, "and Atlanta is a microcosm of what's taking place across the country."
Many of the new gardens sprout at elementary schools, which thrills Wilson because hands-on gardening leads to better eating habits.
"One mother told me, 'Bobby, my child didn't used to eat carrots, but because he grew carrots, now he'll eat them.'"
Reaping other rewards
While the benefits of growing and eating fresh vegetables are obvious, other rewards are less apparent, but equally important, say community-garden enthusiasts.
"You get to know wonderful people that you wouldn't meet otherwise," says Kristi Appelhans, president of the Idaho Falls Community Garden Association in Idaho Falls, Idaho (pop. 50,730). "Community gardens truly do build community."
Appelhans and other volunteers teach budding school-age gardeners how to plant a "pizza garden" with tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic and herbs, and how to grow wheat, which they harvest and grind into flour. At a harvest festival, young gardeners serve homegrown and prepared bread and soup.
Three community gardens thrive in Idaho Falls, two on city property and one on land owned by the Development Workshop, which designed the first garden in 1995 with waist-high plots for people in wheelchairs.
In Salina, Kan. (pop. 45,679), the neighborhood Peace Garden thrives on land donated by Ted Zerger, 72, a retired teacher who bought three vacant lots in a low-income neighborhood, cleaned them up and invited residents to plant a garden. Everyone tends the flowers, vegetables and berries, and harvests what they want and need.
"It's so beautiful, and we're so proud of it," says Lynda Holmes, 46, who along with neighbor Jenifer Riley, 32, makes salsa each year with harvested vegetables. "After a long day, we can come here and relax."
The Peace Garden, with its picnic tables, volleyball net and open space, has become the neighborhood centerpiece year-round. Most residents don't decorate their homes at Christmastime, but help string lights on the garden shed and rose arbors.
"The garden has changed the whole atmosphere of the neighborhood," Zerger says. "Children used to walk around this place, but now they walk through it. They'll cut a rose and take it home to their mother; or when tomatoes are in season, they'll take a snack home."
Visit www.communitygarden.org for help starting a community garden.