What’s better than food to bring a family together? For some Henrico County families, it’s food they grow and prepare themselves.
“We were approached by one of our county supervisors to address an issue of concern with higher infant mortality rates in one district in the county,” said Lisa Sanderson, Extension horticulture agent in Henrico County. “We knew that if we improved the nutrition and physical activity of the people in that district, we might be able to make a difference. Encouraging people to grow their own fruits and vegetables would provide a physical activity that they could do together as a family and provide them more access to fresh and nutritious food.”
In collaboration with the Henrico County Division of Recreation and Parks, Extension secured a 2-acre vacant lot from the county for the community garden in 2008. The first year, seven families planted 12 garden plots. In 2010, Extension opened a second garden on neighboring property to accommodate more families. In 2011, more than 20 families are gardening 27 plots.
Although the garden targets low-income families, anyone willing to put in the time and effort may use it, Sanderson said. Plots are available on a first-come basis beginning April 1 each year. Families must complete an application to receive space. There is a fee to participate, but it is based on the gardener’s ability to pay. Families that qualify, only pay $5 for a 10-by-15-foot plot for the season.
Sanderson, other Extension faculty and staff members, and Master Gardeners work closely with the community gardeners throughout the season. The gardeners receive handbooks with existing Extension publications and information on garden safety, gardener responsibilities, and contact information.
Program participants must maintain their gardens using only organic methods, and many of them attend educational classes offered by Extension.
“Gardeners cannot apply pesticides or herbicides, but they can use organic controls such as beneficial insects and mulches,” Sanderson said. “It is not safe to apply pesticides in such a confined space. Too many other gardens can be affected.”
Participants quickly learn that gardening can be hard work. “When it is hot you have to spend a lot of time watering your garden. Especially when we have 100-degree days,” said Laurel Cosby, a third-year gardener. “Gardening can be hit or miss. When Mother Nature isn’t helping out, you have to do the work.”
Having a garden plot in a community garden is different from having a garden in your backyard. “Some vegetables take more maintenance than others, so if you only plan on coming to the garden once a week, grow something easy like squash or eggplant,” Cosby said.
Teddy Martin, horticulture technician and Henrico Master Gardener, helps keep the water barrels filled at the garden site and answers questions from the gardeners. “I have my own garden plot. I try to show folks different ways of doing things in the garden,” Martin said. “I’m here as a resource for the gardeners if they have questions about what to grow when and how to plant it.”
Extension also teaches gardeners what to do with their fruits and vegetables after harvest. Kim Edmonds, family and consumer sciences agent, provides classes on food preparation, canning, and preservation techniques. In addition to offering classes for adults, Extension also coordinates activities to teach children about gardening and nutrition though its 4-H and Family Nutrition Programs.
According to Sanderson, the program is making an impact among participants. As a result of participation in Gardens Growing Families, 77 percent of gardeners indicated that they saved money by growing their own fruits and vegetables in 2010. And 94 percent of the gardeners said their family’s diet improved as a result of the vegetables or fruit grown in their garden.
“When you are on a budget, you may buy tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce at a grocery store, but if you have a garden, you can try different things. So even if your kids don’t like them you aren’t losing too much,” Cosby said.
For the Wright family, the garden is all about doing something together.
“Since I was a kid, my dad always had a garden. We stayed with my parents one summer and my dad had Logan [Wright’s 3-year-old son] out in the garden with him. Logan fell in love with it,” said Angelo Wright, a second-year gardener. “We decided that having a garden would be something good for the family to do. It is a good way to teach Logan [a good] work ethic and give him something to do outside of the house.”
Each family that participates in the Gardens Growing Families program receives a garden manual filled Virginia Cooperative Extension publications and information on garden safety, gardener responsibilities, and contact information.
Here is a sample of some of the resources they receive:
Additional gardening, food preservation, and nutrition publications can be found on the Publications and Resource page of the Virginia Cooperative Extension website.
Virginia Tech is collaborating with West Virginia University and North Carolina State University to develop, implement, and evaluate a food security strategy to enhance the resiliency of the Southern Appalachian region.
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