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Community gardens nurture friendships along with plants
Angela Ivey, left, shows off a cabbage with friend Jennifer Hopman from the garden they started with Mariette Tipton.

The idea sprouted from a simple conversation.

"Actually, I was visiting with some friends and we got to talking about how we're interested in doing some gardening. We got to talking about the economy and it just grew from that," said Angela Ivey of Clermont.

"We said that we should go to one piece of property and everyone share on it. I turned to my friend ad said, ‘We should do it at your place,' and she said OK."

And thus, a community garden is born.

It's an idea that, between a faltering economy and the push for locally grown or organic vegetables, has been gaining strength in recent years. In towns across Georgia and across the country, community gardens have taken root and have flourished into a viable source of food for not only the people who tend to the plants but also to their friends and family who benefit from the extra produce.

And, they're even flourishing in Hall County.

Stephanie Van Parys, executive director of Oakhurst Community Garden in Decatur, said people start a community garden for a variety of reasons, including living in an apartment or a home that's too shady or as a way to save on food costs.

"There are so many different ways to have a community garden, but for us it's a place where people come together to grow food and flowers, and also to beautify an area -- to take a lot that's been abandoned and use it in a different way, to reclaim that piece of land."

Van Parys acknowledged that there has been a marked increase in community gardens, especially in urban areas where residents may not have access to enough land of their own to sustain a garden. So, they find a piece of vacant land or turn to entities like churches or schools that will let them farm a piece of unused land.

"People want to save money by growing their own food; they want to seize back the opportunity to have fresh, local, organic food," Van Parys said. "There's been a real push to grow your own and a real pride that comes from your state and your own hand. It fits in with saving money, and it also fits in with the whole sustainable movement, growing my own and thinking my food isn't using any gas miles, just me walking to the community garden."

For the community

Plans are in the works to start tilling land near Gainesville Housing Authority apartments for community gardens next year. The idea grew out of the community garden in place at The Springs Church in Flowery Branch, planted in front of the building, and the Hall County Master Gardeners.

Bob Boudreau, one of the organizers of the garden at The Springs, said that garden has a few goals, including teaching kids about nutrition and providing for needy families.

Next year, he said, volunteers hope to move the garden to adjacent property owned by the Hall County School Board, offering plots to families to grow vegetables. They also hope to set aside a few acres for crops, like corn.

"The idea was to get the community involved and teach about nutrition," Boudreau said. "Hopefully we'll get a lot of kids and teenagers."

The garden projects at Harrison Square, Melrose Apartments and Atlanta Street public housing complexes will also involve kids from the neighborhoods, said Beatriz Colin, administrative assistant with Gainesville Housing Authority.

"It's basically to help the residents to have ownership of their own spaces. If they feel like they have a better place to live at, it will help them to take care of their house better," she said. "Or even for the young people, they're learning how to get their vegetable garden and learning how to take care of their own buildings."

Boudreau and Colin said the plots will be tilled and possibly amended this fall, and planting should begin next year. "We're trying to make a plan, but right now it's summer and they haven't started planting anything, so we're just looking at the best areas for planting," Colin said.

Better when fresh

Of course, sometimes a community garden exists simply to have some fresh, good-tasting food.

At Lanier Village Estates in North Hall, 23 raised beds are tended by retirees who have gardened their whole lives. Some beds have tomato plants so big they're pulling down their pole supports and oregano, rosemary and mint plants as big as shrubbery along the side of a house.

"The whole idea of community gardens is a reincarnation of what we did during the second world war," said Joe Iannarone, who said he's always had a garden, no matter where he's lived. "Everybody had a garden, everybody. A lot of stuff you couldn't buy because the stores couldn't sell it, so you had to grow it yourself."

Iannarone has a plot with tomatoes and herbs like rosemary and basil. Fellow gardener Bob Pyne has tomatoes, too, but also tends to a plot of herbs that end up being enjoyed by all the residents at Lanier Village Estates.

"In fact, the mint was so popular last night, we had a strawberry dessert and they put a mint sprig in each one."

Pyne also helps tend to a plot set aside for residents in the community's assisted-living facility, allowing residents who are able to come outside to plant some sunflower seeds or pick some strawberries.

Iannarone said tomatoes are always a popular garden item, and the garden ends up looking like an experiment in different ways to support them - there's a mixture of cages, poles and even a decorative metal gate holding up the plants.

"It's just one of those things that are nice in the summertime, better than what you can find in the store. Just about everybody that has a garden plot is going to grow tomatoes," Iannarone said. "Most of us were gardeners before we came here ... gardening just happens to be our interest, just like others like golf or photography."

Van Parys of the Decatur community garden added that growing your own food can also be something to help sustain you through tough economic times.

"In a time when it's unstable economically, being able to grow your own food comes across as a very powerful act," she said. "And all of that stuff really feeds into this whole providing for one's self. Many people have lost jobs and they're looking for a way to save some money."

Growing savings

That's what sparked the conversation among Ivey and her friends. The idea was to save a little money during some uncertain economic times and have some fresh vegetables to boot.

Her friend Mariette Tipton, who owns the North Hall property where three friends planted their garden, said this is the first time they've had a garden. The biggest obstacle they've run into is amending the soil, which started out as bitter red clay.

"We kind of thought about it because we're concerned about good, fresh, vegetables and organic gardening, and kind of wanted to do it as a group because I was afraid of all the work it entailed by myself," Tipton said. "We were kind of interested in growing our own food for the health factor of it and kind of for the cost savings."

Their North Hall garden is about 20-by-60 feet, Ivey said. Although they didn't intend for it to be quite that big.

"It wasn't going to be that big and then we decided to put in some corn," she added. "We put in some early things, and we're getting potatoes and onions now, and just started getting squash."

That seems to be a trend among many Hall County community gardeners - you start with a plot and it just keeps growing.

"It just so happened the people who had the plots next to here weren't using it, and they allowed me to expand a little bit, and I expanded too much," said George Eastburn, one of the Lanier Village Estates gardeners, as he laughed about his overflowing tomato plants as thick as shrubs.

Iannarone added that he's glad to have the opportunity to work in the soil and share the fruits of his labors with others.

"I think it's a great idea, and we've seen it on television - other cities and countries, they've taken vacant lots and converted them to gardens. And I think especially in these dire economic times, it's a great idea. A lot of this stuff is really great and healthful and fresh."

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