Where do folks interested in community gardening learn how to become community gardeners? I found one answer at the University of Georgia. Graduate student JoHannah Biang spends a considerable portion of her busy days tending the garden and supervising student volunteers at UGArden, a prototype community garden near Athens, Georgia, home to the university.
The garden started from a group of college students who were eager to have a place to grow their own food, JoHannah explains. They formed the UGArden Club, but it has become way bigger than that.
"This model garden is so cool," JoHannah says. "We learn things through the university and then we teach others."
A resource for area community gardens, UGArden taps the wealth of compost the university produces and provides a fertile beginning to new community gardens and school gardens. UGArden grows transplants for their members, as well as others without greenhouses. Members give workshops for high school agriculture teachers. And they are open to talking to anyone interested in setting up a garden. (See contact information below.)
Beyond planting seeds in the red Georgia clay, the gardeners at UGArden plant seeds in young lives and communities. "This university has a huge service learning component," JoHannah explains. For example Professor David Berle teaches two horticulture classes with 300 students each. He requires six hours of service for part of their grades. That is a lot of labor, much of which JoHannah oversees in UGArden.
"I get football players and basketball players, and they are learning and trying something different," she says. "It's taught me a lot, to not be too hard on people and not expect that they know anything about plants.
"I'm surprised. These kids are never outside - they are scared of bugs. I was lucky because I had grandparents who were always outdoors, taking us on hikes, gardening. But these kids just don't know. They get out here and have fun. It's just good to have the experience and a little knowledge. It's very empowering to know how to grow food."
Other aspects are more important, JoHannah says. "There are social benefits. You see people working together who wouldn't otherwise - because they have a common goal."
But what do UGArden members do with all that food? A lot. "The main harvest is not for us to eat," JoHannah explains. "Last summer we took about 2,000 pounds of produce to the food bank. And this year we started a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture, a subscription to a local farm's harvest] to sustain the garden with seeds and a student worker. It is targeted at low-income families. It is $10 per week, and they get about $20 worth of produce."
JoHannah's passion is growing heirloom tomatoes. She ties the vigorous vines by hand to the wire trellis. From feeding the masses to producing memorable tomatoes, this young woman makes a difference with her research, mentoring and outreach. Kudos to UGA for having such a program.