Gardening may be the oldest revolution, but urban community gardening is finally arriving on the scene in Oklahoma.
Locals involved in the urban garden movement say the growing popularity is partly due to the economy, but also an increasing desire to be more connected to the path food takes before it ends up on the table.
“Even though we think of Oklahoma as an agricultural state, most of what you and I eat actually comes from California,” said Fenton Rood, the director of waste systems planning at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. “There’s no substitute for that direct connection to nature that people in the cities are losing.”
That loss of connection with the food chain is not anything new. City dwellers have insulated themselves from where and how food is grown and raised for years, said Bruce Edwards, director of Urban Harvest, a program through the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
“We’ve had whole generations that don’t know where their food comes from,” he said.
Edwards, however, hopes to change that. Urban Harvest works with communities to develop gardens that blend vegetables, ornamentals, flowers and herbs. Most importantly, he helps the communities create a garden that can become a social focal point of the neighborhood.
With community gardens, he said, “people begin to notice the ties it has to community, to the social development.”
Urban Harvest is affiliated with 26 regional community gardens, with eight more in the works. Interest, Edwards said, is definitely growing. Last year, he ran three planning seminars; this year, he’s already up to 20.
Clayton Miller, a world religions major at Oklahoma City University, planted the seeds for a campus community garden when he was a freshman. Now, as he prepares to start his senior year, he can visit two planting beds on the edge of campus that hold lettuce, okra, green onions and potatoes.
He sees the small garden as a bridge to the surrounding community and is working with neighbors to develop interest in the project.
“Everything is about community,” Miller said, “whether that’s religion or culture. The idea of something that brings a community together to grow their own food, it’s almost divine to me.”
The OCU garden may have started with Miller, but the product was a campus effort. OCU’s student government donated funds, the facilities maintenance crew built the planting boxes and Brett Wheat-Simms, general manager of on-campus food services, helped with logistics.
That aspect of donation is key to many local urban community gardens.
In Oklahoma, where many people have access to a yard, Edwards said many of the Urban Harvest-affiliated gardens are run by organizations or church groups. Those groups use the green space to give back to the community, often donating the food grown to local food pantries or shelters.
Rood has done the same. He worked with the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to develop a guide for developing edible school gardens. He took that information to help start a garden at his daughter’s Edmond school, planting kid-friendly foods and helping them grow tomatoes to donate to a local food bank.
Community gardens are not only growing greens, but going green.
Miller uses scraps from the OCU cafeteria to make compost, and he said he hopes to give back to that cafeteria with some of the produce that compost is helping to grow.
Rood said urban gardening is also a great way to reuse yard waste, which he said takes up more than 20 percent of what Oklahoma communities send to landfills. Like kitchen scraps, the yard waste can be composted.
In back of the Regional Food Bank offices, Edwards nourishes a 2-acre garden and greenhouses. Each spring, gardens affiliated with Urban Harvest pick up donated seeds or plants grown onsite. Edwards said they will give away 15,000 plants this year, including tomatoes, okra, peppers, squash and a variety of herbs and flowers.
The gardens are almost completely organic ” from producing compost to using old tires to help grow potatoes.
In one of the greenhouses, Edwards encourages his “worm herd.” The worms digest garden garbage to produce fertilizer. He even sells worm herd starter kits for making fertilizer at home.
He has also started experimenting with aquaponics, a system that utilizes 500 tilapia to help grow herbs and vegetables. The system reuses water that is fertilized by the fish then cleaned by the plants. He hopes to develop the system further and expand it to local farmers who can then sell the fish to restaurants.
Whether in an empty lot, at school or behind an office building, urban gardening connects people to their food and their neighbors. Most importantly, it can grow anywhere. “Jenny Coon Peterson