Signs of Sustainability: Sustainable Gardening in Ithaca

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By Ron Liso

“There are only two things that money can’t buy – true love and home-grown tomatoes.”

This quote from one of the gardeners at the Ithaca Community Gardens sums up well what the Gardens are all about. Run by Project Growing Hope, the Ithaca Community Gardens is a potpourri of seasoned Ithacans, newly arrived immigrants, students, retirees, families and children. Gardeners all learn from one another as we share tools, seeds, and advice while admiring each other’s little Edens. It’s a place where the values of cooperation and community are practiced every day.

During nearly 40 years of existence, thousands of Ithacans have been closely involved in the Ithaca Community Gardens. It all started when a handful of Ithaca residents – gardeners without land – joined together and started cultivating a large vacant lot in their neighborhood. The project proved to be an enjoyable way for the gardeners to produce some of their own food and strengthen their community ties. By 1981, more than 100 households were cultivating plots, providing organically grown food for several hundred family members, friends, local food banks and meal providers.

The Gardens embody sustainability in many ways. People grow their own organic healthy food, while being a part of a tight community of fellow gardeners. For only $40 a year (scholarships are also available) and a 280-square-foot plot, many gardeners can grow enough vegetables to partially or totally feed themselves throughout the gardening season and beyond. The Gardens are buzzing with families, children, and people chatting and sharing plants all summer long. They also provide food during the colder season, where garlic, kale and winter squash can be preserved well into the winter.

Fruits and vegetables typically travel thousands of miles before they arrive in our supermarket aisles. In contrast, vegetables grown at the Community Gardens are enjoyed at our tables just a bicycle ride away. Located just off Route 13 near the Ithaca Farmers Market, the Ithaca Community Gardens can be easily reached by Ithacans – by foot, bicycle, car or car sharing – making it even more sustainable to garden there. Our Gardens also support local businesses whenever gardeners purchase gardening supplies, and of course, our seeds and plants. Project Growing Hope purchases Gardens tools, equipment, and manure locally.

In addition to sharing gardening skills, extra plants and seeds, gardeners have been donating the fruits of our labor to our local food pantries. The Ithaca Community Gardens provides many pounds of fresh produce annually to food pantries, local meal programs and individuals (more than 1,000 pounds in 2016).

With the demand for real estate in our city tightening up, Project Growing Hope still provides garden space for people without yards and those on limited incomes. And this volunteer-run organization also provides free garden plots for many community organizations, including Dispositional Alternatives Program at Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, CULTURA Ithaca, Northern Light Learning Center, Rainbow Healing Center, and Unity House.

Our Community Gardens build communities of families and friends who choose to garden together. The Gardens bring people together in the many mutual tasks we do to maintain them as a whole, thereby growing new friendships both within and outside the Gardens. The Community Gardens keep our city green, not only in a literal sense, but by growing communities.

To learn more about us, and find out how to sign up for a plot, visit IthacaCommunityGardens.org or call (607) 216-8770 (leave message). For information about other local community gardens in our area, see CCETompkins.org/gardening/community-connections/community-gardens.

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This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. To learn more about the organization, visit its website at SustainableTompkins.org. Ron Liso is a member of the Ithaca Community Gardens.

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