The power of gardening

Gardening does more than create beautiful spaces. It can also help address current problems of nutrition and help reduce crime.

In tight-budget times such as these, gardens are often thought of as something nice, but easily expendable and somewhat of a luxury item. However, Michigan State University Extension would suggest that gardens are low cost, beautiful tools to address current problems such as nutrition, neighborhood blight and crime.

Research has shown that the most successful teaching method is hands-on, experiential learning. Gardens provide excellent vehicles for experiential education in almost any subject, but excel as learning tools for math and science. From figuring out how many tomato plants can grow well in a 4’ x 6’ bed to why we should plant flowers to encourage pollinators and predatory insects, gardens are the living laboratories that best demonstrate applied math and science concepts. Real-life laboratories and experiments always beat computer-simulated activities hands-down in the ability to fire up the curious mind.

Additionally, gardens are natural teachers for nutrition. Research at Texas A & M University demonstrated that “children who participate in garden education are more likely to try new and different foods” and “to make better snack choices”. I remember how much I admired a gardener uncle of mine who would yank a carrot right out of the ground, beat off the dirt on his overalls and crunch right into that sweet orange cone right there in the garden – I thought he was so cool and I love carrots and gardening to this very day.

Gardening is one of our best instructors of environmental stewardship. When you see and experience that sense of wonder of where your food comes from by nurturing a seed, you are much less likely to foul the soil and water. It becomes obvious that to poison the earth is to poison yourself.

Gardens can also function as efficient anti-crime agents. In the Victoria Hills neighborhood of Kitchener, Ontario there was a large, vacant corner lot that was full of garbage and a popular site for illegal activity. In 1994, Regional Police Officer Rob Davis spearheaded a successful transformation of the area by applying the standard CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) strategy of placing a safe activity in an unsafe or vulnerable area. Specifically, Officer Davis introduced the idea of a community garden. The effect was impressive. Within the first year that the garden was in place, the number of reported police incidents for the surrounding three apartment complexes dropped 30 percent. The results continued to improve in 1995 and 1996 when year over year, reported police incidents dropped by 48.8 and 55.7 percent.

A more local example of the restorative power of gardening is in Brightmoor neighborhood in northwest Detroit. In 2005, Riet Schumack and her family bought a home on the Rouge River in Brightmoor and began to renovate it. Most of the surrounding homes were in various states of disrepair and abandonment. The same year, Schumack took the Urban Roots Community Garden Leader Training Program and started a youth garden in a lot down the street from her house. Schumack purposely located the garden in close proximity to drug use and other illegal activity. The positive activity from the garden, in addition to Schumack calling the police to report illicit activity whenever she saw it eventually drove the bad actors away.  

By 2011, many of the formerly abandoned homes had been purchased and renovated, and this Brightmoor neighborhood became well-known for its beautiful community gardens and growing number of well-kept yards. People moved into the neighborhood instead of out.

How can a garden have such a powerful cascade of positive impacts? It is the ability of a garden to draw people together around two common focal points: beauty and good food. When you take a trash-strewn vacant lot that is home base for illegal behavior and turn it into a place of beauty filled with positive activities, you will drive out the criminal element. Everyone eats and everyone appreciates beauty. When neighbors walk by the garden and see their gardener neighbors, they have common interests to talk each other about. And neighbors talking to each other can eventually form relationships, connectedness, safer and more positive feelings about where they live and to the development of a community where people look out for each other and their children. And, isn’t this what all of us want for our communities?

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