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By Monique Watts for Artvoice

How community gardens will save Buffalo and the world, one block at a time
You might be surprised to know that you can fight crime, hunger, and childhood obesity, promote social inclusion and anti-racism, lessen your global footprint, make an impact on climate change and promote recycling and water preservation all by participating in just one activity. And you don’t even have to leave your own block.

To make this kind of impact, you need only to start a community garden. What began as a way to fight urban blight, and was seen for the most part as a temporary fix to a growing number of unsightly vacant lots, has now gained momentum and has become an enduring part of the Buffalo community. In a city that boasts one of the nation’s largest annual garden walks, perhaps we shall soon see community gardens take center stage in the same way as the show-stopping private gardens have done. In an impressive show of collaboration, a group of organizations joined a task force under the leadership of Common Councilmemembers David Rivera and David Francyk and have formed Buffalo Growing. To learn more about their joint efforts and the organizations involved, visit

How do I start a community garden?

According to Gail Graham, West Side resident and vice president of the board of trustees for Grassroots Gardens, all you need is a few neighbors who are willing to give some time digging and weeding and you’ve got a garden. “I’m not a gardener,” says Graham. But his skills as an organizer have certainly motivated people to get involved. In Graham’s Lower West Side neighborhood, the changes are clearly evident. He shares a past memory of one pre-dawn experience: “A young man was shot in front of my house. I held him down in the street to keep him from bleeding too much while I called for help. We had our share of drug dealers and groups of young men hanging out on porches up to no good,” Graham says. “We set up a neighborhood watch and there were nights that I would sit out on my porch with a baseball bat.” Then Graham’s block club decided to start a community garden. They had great success getting neighbors involved. Now even people walking to the bus stop at the corner of Fargo and Jersey, where one garden is located, have adopted the space as their own. With more foot traffic and neighbors out in the gardens, there is less motivation for criminal mischief.

Residents across the city have similar experiences with how community gardens have brought people together in a common cause. These gardens give people from different economic and social backgrounds the opportunity to learn from each other and in some cases mend feuds that have kept them apart for years. And with more than 40 community gardens across the city and 23 more planned for this spring, Grassroots Gardens has been a tremendous catalyst for this ground-breaking change. Some community gardens go beyond ornamental grasses and perennials and provide a source of fresh food for the growers. Grassroots Gardens also receives requests to help establish vegetables gardens and even has plans to try to grow fruit trees in some of the larger lots.

“Sometimes we find that once people begin to grow vegetables, they aren’t even sure how to cook with them,” says Graham. This discovery led Grassroots Gardens to begin discussion on the need for culinary instruction, and to provide information on vegetable distribution. In addition, increasing populations of refugees from Africa, Vietnam, and Somalia who come from farming communities are seeking space to grow food gardens. Graham believes that this is an important step for Buffalo to keep these newly established residents from leaving the city and to provide a productive way that they can be part of the local community. According to Graham, Grassroots is willing to provide help securing property and appropriate leases from the city if needed, as well as to provide liability insurance. They will also help to secure plants, seeds, and a source for watering to help the gardens become established. In exchange, the block club, organization, or group of neighbors must commit the time and effort to make a “sustainable” garden. The project doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Most of the gardens started by Grassroots comprise plants gained by splitting or cuttings from other gardens, along with found objects.

There are also greening grants available and many nurseries, including Urban Roots Community Garden Center, offer discount prices for block clubs and organizations.

Buffalo ReUse’s community gardens.

Speaking of found objects, when asked how community gardens relate to the Buffalo ReUse’s mission to promote green demolition practices, Caesandra Seawell, Buffalo ReUse’s director of community programs, says, “Helping people to grow fresh food builds nutritionally and socially healthier neighborhoods.” And in a society that tends to have a disposable attitude, she feels that it connects people to objects and encourages them to learn more about the natural world around them. Buffalo ReUse worked with area school students to create the Children’s Vinery garden, where the theme is all things that creep, crawl, and dangle. Picture frames, bicycle spokes, bricks and pavers from demolished buildings, and even a fence made of bedposts can be seen in ReUse garden projects. If you aren’t squeamish about eating worms, Seawell would like to enlist your help in a unique fundraising opportunity at Buffalo ReUse’s Earth Warming Party at 298 Northampton Street on April 24. And for those more artistically than culinarily talented, there will be an exhibition and contest that will feature birdhouses constructed with found and recycled materials.

So whether you start small by adopting a garden bed from Massachusetts Avenue Project or Grassroots Gardens, or you rally your friends and neighbors to “return to the land” and cultivate a city lot into an urban garden, you too can change the world around you just by doing a little digging in the dirt.

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