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Community gardens take root in Arizona

More and more Arizonans are getting back to their roots through community gardening.

Community gardens in Tucson, Phoenix, Mesa, Flagstaff and other cities across the state are in full bloom, as part of city initiatives or through private organizations.

In Tucson, community gardens have doubled from 12 to 24 since 2010, according to Veronica Simon, communications coordinator at Community Gardens of Tucson. 

Flagstaff gardens have gone from two to five since 2010, according to Andrea Hartley, community garden coordinator at Terra BIRDS, an organization partnered with the City of Flagstaff. Currently, people are caring for 53 community gardens in Maricopa County through the Arizona Cooperative Extension program.

“For me, it’s just a wonderful way not only to build community and grow your own organic produce to eat, it’s a step to food security and it’s part of living a sustainable life,” said Faith Edman, who tends a plot at the Benedictine Monastery Garden in Tucson.

Community gardening is good exercise and gives plenty of social interactions, according to Edman.

“I’ve made friends and we help each other out,” Edman said. “And it did probably help lower my blood pressure by about 20 points, it’s a good way to de-stress for sure.”

Community gardens can be helpful for people who may not have time to water everyday, since the irrigation system at community gardens is automatic, Edman said.

“The biggest advantage is for people who haven’t gardened before, they have a support network within the garden,” Edman said. “So, they can learn by talking to other gardeners, they can get help if they have problems, and that’s important for all of us; having that community, learning and growing together, literally.”

For this summer, Edman is planning on growing carrots, turnips, herbs, butternut squash and filling the rest of the plot with flowers for others to enjoy.

The Garden Kitchen, a program of the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the city of South Tucson, offers free gardening and cooking classes to the community. They meet on Saturdays to walk around the neighborhood and host cooking classes, which are followed by gardening classes.

Cheralyn Schmidt, Garden Kitchen coordinator, teaches classes on various gardening topics in the demonstration garden on weekends.

Cooking classes at the Garden Kitchen use 10 ingredients to create meals made in 30 minutes or less to make them easy for the average person, according to Schmidt.

“We have a generation of kids, including my generation also, kind of grow up and they don’t have a connection to their food sources, how food grows, how to cook it,” said Schmidt.

Schmidt said it is important to “link people back to their food sources.” By learning about food and cooking at home, people can control ingredients and prevent diet-related diseases, according to Schmidt.

Some upcoming classes are The Lazy Gardener, Crockpot Cooking, Spring Planting and an Italy Mediterranean Class.

“I have dreamt of food my whole life,” said Schmidt. “It’s been my obsession forever, ever since I could remember.”

At the Community Gardens of Tucson, people can rent out plots for a monthly fee of $18, or with a reduced fee for low-income gardeners.

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Community gardens are located at eight schools, six churches and nine spread throughout private residences, businesses and parks, according to Jessica Paul, a garden technician with Community Gardens of Tucson.

Gardeners can attend meetings with the Master Gardeners, through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, to learn tips about gardening and mingle with community members.

Paul handles the functioning and irrigation at the community gardens, building raised gardening beds and plans events and meetings.

“Food is one of the most intimate things that we do so it’s really important to connect people with where their food is coming from,” Paul said. “I think that right now, people are kind of disconnected with nature and their food and community as well, so I think it’s really great to connect them with nature and growing their own food.”

Paul said gardening can improve mental and physical health and is very therapeutic.

“It’s a learning curve with gardening, so you learn from people around you and you can share food with them, share knowledge, share a care and concern for health, and it adds a beautiful space to a community,” Paul said.

Community Gardens of Tucson works with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona as well as some schools and local farms, according to Paul.

“I’ve never really had a job that I’ve felt this passionate about,” Paul said. “I think that gardening is life, you know? Food is life and if we teach our kids how to be healthy and get in touch with nature, then there is hope for the future.”

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Holly Regan/Arizona Sonora News

Faith Edman (left) and Sharon Oliver (right) tend to their plots at the Benedictine Monastery Garden in Tucson, Arizona.