West Hill Garden with Yayoi copy

(This article appeared in the November 30, 2015 issue of Tompkins Weekly.)

The harvest season in local community gardens has wound down, except perhaps for lingering beds of hardy kales and leeks. But a different kind of harvest persists all yearlong, arising out of the intertwined relationships of the gardeners with the broader community. Yes, the gardens are for food production and improved nutrition, but they also are about solidarity, sharing, and a shift to more sustainable lifestyles.

Sustainable Tompkins has invested repeatedly in these relationships over the past seven years. Dozens of their Neighborhood Mini-Grants have been awarded to community volunteers to purchase essential equipment and building materials to get the gardens up and running. It can be difficult for one person to start a program or garden for the community without easy access to supplies or money. Deer fencing is perhaps the most common request, but tools and sheds and raised beds and watering systems are all necessary too. Without this infrastructure, it would be hard for the volunteers to get their gardens growing.

The Sustainable Tompkins mini-grant program helps those aiming to better their community by giving grants ranging from $150 to $750. The program just marked its seventh year with almost $59,000 given in grants to 147 innovative, grassroots projects throughout Tompkins County. Their goal is to support and stimulate resident-based, “bottom-up” initiatives that improve the quality of life of residents by building capacity, resilience, and leadership through collaborative projects.

The deadline for the next round of grants is December 1. That’s the same date as Giving Tuesday when community members are invited to support the Neighborhood Mini-Grants program on the GiveGab platform or at SustainableTompkins.org.

Dryden Community Garden

The Dryden Community Garden had a deer problem. The deer were using their vegetables and flowers as an all-you-can-eat buffet, so they reached out to Sustainable Tompkins for a mini-grant to build a new fence to keep out the hungry animals. The community garden was started in the hopes of providing a “local, accessible, protected gardening space for community members to grow food for personal use or for the community at large” Jean Simmons, the organizer, said. She wanted to “promote healthy, sustainable food production and eating.”

It serves the entire Dryden community, from the people living in apartments without a yard to students needing a place for research, and reaches out especially to those who give to the Dryden Kitchen Cupboard. Simmons herself donates about 80% of what she grows to the Kitchen Cupboard, and started growing brussel sprouts and cherry tomatoes specifically when she was told that is what the children like.

The United Methodist Church also has a plot at the garden to grow veggies for the free meals they distribute. Three years after their new fence was built they received another Sustainable Tompkins mini-grant to replace a broken gate. The garden promotes cooperation among community members, from those who build and maintain the fence and gates to those who plant and maintain the garden.

West Village Apartments

Yayoi Koizumi wanted to make her West Village Apartment complex seem more alive. There was plenty of unused space in front of the complex, and she saw the opportunity to use this space for something green, sustainable, and educational. With a mini-grant from Sustainable Tompkins she created a small garden, using the money to put up a deer fence, and get wood, soil, and sand for building raised beds. Another grant provided garden hoses and tools. The creation of the garden resulted in a stronger sense of community among residents with diverse backgrounds. Local children have flocked to the garden, learning to plant and harvest fresh berries, vegetables, and flowers.

The community expanded beyond the apartment dwellers as more people got involved. LACS students helped build a trellis for the garden, and Catholic Charities donated money for more supplies. Koizumi took advantage of this newly created community to increase awareness among adults and children of the problems associated with litter and pollution from discarded plastics.

Growing Groton

The first step in creating a sustainable community is educating the members of that community. Sara Knobel from the Groton Public Library sought to create a program that would help the future leaders of the Groton community learn about the importance and necessity of sustainable farming practices. She created the Groton Public Library’s Agricultural Education Program for Groton Youth with the help of a Sustainable Tompkins mini-grant to give young people “opportunities to learn about sustainable farming practices, to expand their agricultural literacy, and to gain knowledge of food security.” Through the program, which takes place over the summer, the teens grow their own food and learn about sustainability through guest lectures, job-shadowing, and internships.

The hands-on training program takes place at the community garden at Groton Middle/High School that contains raised beds, a hoop house, apple trees, and a compost system that collects waste from the cafeteria. There is a student-run farmer’s market to help the students develop marketing skills. Chad Devoe, a teacher at Groton helps teach the students about growing vegetables as an extension of his “Land, Food, & You” class. Knobel says that none of this could have happened without help from Sustainable Tompkins and others, and that the project has done nothing but strengthen the sense of community in Groton and among those with similar passions for healthy, ecologically-conscious growing practices.

Donations are needed to continue the Neighborhood Mini-Grants program into its eighth year. Sustainable Tompkins is running a campaign to raise $5,000 to fund more citizen-led projects. Learn more at SustainableTompkins.org or visit www.givegab.com/nonprofits/sustainable-tompkins/campaigns/neighborhood-mini-grants-program on Giving Tuesday (December 1).

By Martha Torres