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People that grew up on farms and rural areas in the 1940s and 50s grew almost all of their food - vegetables, fruits, chickens and a pig to boot. It was a matter of necessity. In many cases, people had little disposable income - so they bartered. I tell many of these stories in my second book: Lifting the Yoke - Local Solutions to America's Farm and Food Crisis.

Gardens and food also played a role in urban America. Historically, there were two views of how gardens fit into our cities. The first is utopian and holds that the city should be a garden where there is a sense of refuge, beauty and nourishment. The other view is utilitarian in nature and places gardens in a subordinate position as an extension of the city. Over the last 300 years, the utopian impulse has arisen, diminished and then been picked up again by a new renaissance of thought and action.

The early settlers of the American colonies wanted to create the ideal pastoral city, unlike Europe, where there were layers of church, war and class distinctions. American towns which grew into cities were carved directly out of the wilderness in a short period of time. They were laid out with green space in mind. You can still see this in the commons areas unique to New England villages.

Boston is distinguished in the landscape history of America as having the first commonly held green space (1640) & public park. The green was first reserved for pasture land for the town's cows and later as a drill area for the militia. There is a common green across from my home in Queen City Park in South Burlington.

By the 18th century the distinction between town and country had become quite pronounced and city gardens reflected a growing cultural sophistication with European influences. By the 1900's, the city and its relation to green space had changed drastically due to industrialization and the advent of railroads. The late 19th century and early 20th century brought with it poverty and urban decay. All of these factors gave rise to parks as a way to escape from urban stress.

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky which is blessed with a park system which weaves throughout the city and the Ohio River valley. The park system was designed and planned by the great landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted who also developed park systems in Boston, Baltimore and Buffalo, but the jewel in the crown was Central Park(1859) in New York City. Olmsted also planned the grounds at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, the summer home of the Vanderbilt family.


Keeping Eden, A History of Gardening in America
written by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.


No other form of gardening has done more to enliven American cities than the cultivation of parks, vacant lots and backyards for food production. During times of need, gardens have provided food and joy to our nation.

During World War I. (1917-1919) they were Liberty Gardens. Between 1890-1930, there were Potato Patches. The City Beautiful Movement took place between 1890-1910 and between 1930-1938, Depression Relief Gardens were in style.

The Victory Gardens helped feed the nation during WWII and brought new vigor to the cities. Victory Gardens, also called war gardens or food gardens, were vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted at private residences and public parks to reduce pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. Victory Gardens were also called war gardens, food gardens and community gardens.

Community Gardens - In a space of less than 100 years the Community Garden movement evolved from an act of charity to one of self-help. Allotment Gardens, the earlier term for Community Gardens, are not unique to the United States. There has been a long history dating back to The English enclosure act of the late 18th century which gave gardening patches at the edge of towns to tenant farmers who had lost the right to cultivate the property of large landowners.

Earlier in the U.S., the first programs to convert vacant city land to food production occurred during the economic depression of the 1830's. In the 1950's, families moved to the suburbs in order to live out the dream house surrounded by the unique American green lawn with no dandelions and peaceful surroundings. Soon, shopping malls, strip developments and highways lessened the tranquility of the suburban setting. At the same times Urban renewal resulted in more space for community gardens.

Today, community gardens provide opportunities for those who don't have access to land, those with limited incomes and anyone interested in gardening. Community gardens have been converting vacant lots and open space in cities throughout the U.S. into gardens for many years. In times of need, they helped to feed the nation, save energy & bring new vigor to the urban enclaves.

In 2009, it was estimated there were about 1 million community gardens in the U.S. In 2007, there were between 18,000-20,000 community gardens in the U.S. and Canada. As you can see that number has grown by leaps and bounds. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, confirmed the 1 million number. She included the 2009 White House garden in her numbers. Who can argue with the First Lady.

Today, community gardens provide opportunities for those who don't have access to land, those with limited incomes and anyone interested in gardening. In Vermont, Tommy Thompson spent his last decade promoting community gardens around the globe and in Burlington, Vermont. Gardens For All was a non-profit that Tommy started and ran in Vermont. He began the community garden initiative in the Burlington area in the 1970s. Gardens For All, the non-profit arm of Garden Way, was a company founded by Lyman Wood to market innovative Troy Bilt roto-tillers, the Garden Way Cart, garden books and the Back to the Land Movement.

The community garden movement in Burlington is called, Burlington Area Community Gardens (BACG). It's administered by Burlington Parks and Recreation along with a volunteer board. There are 400 plots, which are maintained on eleven sites, serving over 1,500 individuals and families. For more information, go online to BACG website - or call 802-864-0123.

Tommy Thompson

The following quote was taken from a bronze plaque on a red rock boulder at the Tommy Thompson Community Garden begun in 1978 in the Intervale in Burlington, Vermont.

"Someday when enough people see this joy or experience it themselves, there just may be gardens for all."
Bryson H Tommy Thompson

History - The Tommy Thompson Community Garden

The Tommy Thompson Community Garden Burlington, Vermont began in the late 1970's. At the time, the community garden system had more than 20 acres in production on 800 plots in 20 different locations in the Burlington area. People in schools and prisons, seniors, low income people and others were involved. On a per capita basis, Burlington at that time was considered by many to be The Community Garden Capital of the country. The cost was only $10 per plot or whatever you could pay. There was a Zucchini festival and people were seen on buses hauling water to their gardens and bringing home vegetables.

Present Day

Today, the Tommy Thompson Community Garden has around 160 garden plots. There are also a number of half plots and many families share plots. In total, that comes to about 3 acres of gardens - a mighty amount of vegetables, flowers, herbs and of course - lots of weeds.

I was the coordinator of the 3-acre Tommy Thompson Community Garden in the Intervale for 15 years. I want to tell you some of its history and my own experience as a gardener and coordinator. This piece was written eight years ago.

I started gardening in the Intervale some 25 years ago because of the rich fertility of the flood plain soil along the Winooski River. What's unique about the Intervale is that it's located in the natural landscape of the city. It is rare that such a green space is located in an urban area where you can find a sense of harmony, refuge and nourishment. I also enjoy the human community that grows each year at the community gardens. I'm surrounded by people of all ages, income levels and ethnic backgrounds who garden in their own unique ways.

Recent immigrants in the community gardens use techniques and grow varieties native to their countries. Southeast Asians grow plants close together. For example, the Mai family from Vietnam grew greens, close together in beds. They introduced me to vegetables completely new to my palate. Ten years ago, a woman from the Ukraine, Aida Sarkisova, brought heirloom tomato seeds from her native country and shared them with other gardeners. In 2001, twenty Bosnian families joined us. We had a garden pot-luck picnic in early August where we were treated to many ethnic Bosnian dishes. Last year, 15 Somali Bantu families took part in the gardens. Today in 2014, there are more immigrants from other countries, including Bhutan.

Many gardeners are low-income and rely on the gardens for their sustenance. They receive scholarships through donations of community gardeners. No one is turned away because of lack of funds. One gardener in particular - we call him "Sonny The Weed Whacker," who was once homeless and used to keep the areas around the gardens looking park-like. Many gardeners like Sonny also share their vegetables with others or take them to those in need or to the local "Food Shelf." Bob Kiss, the once mayor of the "Queen City," has had a garden plot at Tommy Thompson next to mine for a number of years.

It is estimated that a 30-by-30 foot garden plot can feed a small family through the summer and fall. And that's no small change when you consider the cost of food today. Add in the fact that the vegetables organic - without the use of synthetic chemicals. And how about the physical exercise that it takes to grow your own food.

When I was the overall volunteer coordinator at Tommy Thompson, seven other coordinators assisted me in an array of tasks. We dealt with the day-to-day of tasks: orient new gardeners, organize work days and the final clean-up, deal with weedy gardens/weedy gardeners, parking and theft issues and write grants to raise funds for soil improvement and infrastructure like garden sheds and tools. You might say, we were down in the trenches.

The Tommy Thompson Community Garden is surrounded by the Diggers Mirth Collective, the Intervale Community Farm - the first CSA in Vermont, and eight other organic farms. The Intervale Center works with these farmers. The center has also developed a riparian nursery. On Thursday evenings potlucks are held along with music and lots of kids. Go online to the Intervale Center for a description of all their projects.

The Vermont Community Garden Network (VCGN)

The Vermont Community Garden Network (formerly Friends of Burlington Gardens) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to the growth and success of community and school gardens. Established in 2001, VCGN has helped start and sustain hundreds of gardens all over Vermont and has connected thousands of children, teens, and adults to fresh, healthy food and sustainable food production.

VCGN provides hands-on garden education for youth and adults in Burlington and training, technical assistance, resources, and networking opportunities for garden leaders across the state. The work of VCGN it rooted the understanding that community and school gardens have food security, health, social, economic, and environmental benefits. This work is closely tied to the larger statewide and regional discussions about how we feed ourselves.

Contact Jessica Hyman, the director of VCGN for more information. jess@vcgn.org


Gardening is by far the most popular hobby in the U.S. A 2008 report contained the following: Thirty one percent of U.S. households, or an estimated 36 million households participated in food gardening. Food gardening includes growing vegetables, fruit, berries and herbs. A total of $2.5 billion was spent on gardening supplies.

It was estimated that in 2009 43 million Americans planned to grow food in their gardens - up 19 percent from 2008. Twenty one percent of food gardening households will be new to gardening. Eleven percent of households already active in food gardening plan to increase the amount of food they grow.

Among households that don't currently participate in food gardening, 4 percent would be interested in having a plot in a community garden located near their home. This translates into 5 million households, compared to 1 million households that are current community gardeners.


The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America was conducted in 2009
Harris Interactive for the National Gardening Association
with a representative sample of 2,229 households.

Other Facts: