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Cultivating Resilience: How Home Gardens is Transforming Lives

home gardens in our own words

Why Home Gardens?

In a world where food systems are riddled with intentional inequities, Growing Gardens' Home Gardens program stands as a beacon of change. Since 1996, Home Gardens has supported 1,589 households in starting their own vegetable gardens. “We want people to experience how important it is to grow your own vegetables for your body, your soul, and whoever’s around you,” Antonio, the Home Gardens Community Manager and a former participant, said.

With the understanding that our current food systems are built on intentional and systemic inequity, Home Gardens aims to disrupt these foundations by placing the power back in the hands of communities. Empowering people to start and maintain home gardens is a way to combat food insecurity by making access to fresh produce easier, more reliable, and cheaper. Gardening provides the added physical benefits of daily exercise and time outside, as well as emotional and spiritual rewards. 

Past participants have highlighted the joy of actively engaging in each part of the food production process, trusting that their food is produced with love and healthy practices, watching seeds transform into delicious meals, and growing foods that are culturally important to them. 

“I like seeing the process, and bringing something up,” Bonnie Rogers, a Home Gardens participant, said of her garden. “It’s an escape from any current problems. If I don’t stop gardening, I’ll stay engaged in other areas of life, too.”

Gardening also serves as a way to bring communities together, helping each other out and bonding over a love for growing things, which Home Gardens aims to encourage through a neighborhood-based organization structure.

“I started out as a program participant,” Home Garden Director Rashae Burns said. “I continued to tell everyone about it as I started growing my own food, and now am still excited to learn more about gardening from avid gardeners in the program.”

While gardening can serve as an act of self-love and a space of peace, it is also hard and time-consuming work. The inequities that persist at all levels of the food system create extra barriers for low-income households and communities of color to start and maintain home gardens. These structural barriers are not the fault of individuals and communities who face them, and Home Gardens aims to first and foremost honor the autonomy and lived experiences of participants. Growing Gardens provides resources, support, and mentorship, with the belief that when structural inequities are pushed back against, everyone has the potential to cultivate a thriving garden. When anyone is able to grow, everyone can learn from one another and entire food systems can flourish.

“If people can stick with it, they can grow a large amount of food with sustainable practices,” Gabi Villaseñor, the Community Coordinator for the North Clackamas County area, said. “The biggest driver is igniting people’s excitement around gardening and nature.”

How It Works

Households meeting low-income requirements in the Portland Metropolitan Area enroll in the three-year program through the Growing Gardens website or through their Community Coordinator. Coordinators live throughout Portland and Clackamas county, about 70% are past participants themselves, and many are also members of their neighborhood’s school communities through Youth Grow. Upon enrolling in the program, participants are matched with a coordinator who lives in their neighborhood and who will supply them with free gardening supplies, lessons, and support throughout the program.

“People can feel like members of a community instead of just getting resources,” Gabi said of Community Coordinators’ role. Coordinators aim to connect participants with one another and to get to know participants holistically over the course of the three years and beyond, as well as being active members of their neighborhood communities themselves.

New members join the Home Gardens program in the fall and spring of each year. The program begins with Community Coordinators visiting participants’ homes and working with them to create a plan for the garden, which includes sending soil samples from the yard to a lab to ensure it will be healthy for growing and deciding where to place the garden bed for optimal sunlight. 

Participants range across all ages, household sizes, neighborhoods, physical abilities, and levels of gardening experience. For families, gardening can serve as a way to spend quality time together outside and young children are some of the most enthusiastic home gardeners. Playing in the garden and eating food grown by one’s family can inspire a lifelong curiosity and love for nature and growing plants. At the other end of the spectrum, planning and problem-solving in the garden offer intellectual stimulation for elderly participants. Some participants live alone, and for them, gardening can be a way to get out of the house regularly and engage in a caregiving practice. 

“I think about my surroundings,” Bonnie said, of practicing mindfulness in the garden. “I’ve learned the bird calls, I talk to the birds and think about my plans for upcoming seasons.”

While many participants join Home Gardens for increased food security, their stories show that gardening offers unique benefits to people from all walks of life, and Growing Gardens works to meet everyone where they are, honoring these varied experiences.

Just like the gardeners, each garden will be different depending on people’s abilities, yard, and what they wish to grow. There are three available bed options — in-ground beds with no wood frame, container gardens that can be used in spaces where in-ground beds are not possible, and accessible raised beds for those with health concerns that prevent them from tending to in-ground beds. Beds are installed in October, and participants take part in the first of two mandatory workshops led by Community Coordinators, learning how to build healthy soil. 

Home Gardens strives to support gardens that are healthy for the environment as well as for gardeners, and Community Coordinators and participants work to reduce waste and water usage, build healthy soils, and engage in other sustainable practices.

Bonnie, for example, collects eggshells from her neighbors and extra coffee grounds from restaurants to build compost. She has also recycled plastic egg cartons to make a greenhouse and developed a method of sealing seeds to preserve them. When Bonnie started out, she didn’t know if these things would work or not, but her curiosity paid off, as she now has over 150 plants growing in her healthy, thriving garden. 

“It’s trial and error,” Bonnie said, of developing her own methods. “Nobody’s going to see if I fail, and if I do, I’ll try another way. There’s not a wrong way to do it.”

Community Coordinators host plant distributions in their neighborhoods, and participants pick out the plants that they will grow. These seeds and starts are mostly donated from suppliers and nurseries in the community, and are free of cost to participants. Home Gardens works to provide culturally specific plants, and Community Coordinators will try to source seeds and starts that participants request each season.

Building Community

For the three years that the program lasts, participants are supplied with all the seeds, plants, and tools that they need, along with a gardening manual. Community Coordinators regularly send out additional resources, ranging from gardening tips to information on local food pantries. 

Coordinators schedule garden visits with participants in their neighborhood during the summer months when gardens are in peak bloom, but are available for consultation or support throughout the year as well. With the understanding that life can get busy and gardening can be challenging, Coordinators consistently reach out to newer gardeners instead of expecting them to make the first move. Many second and third year gardeners remain in regular contact with their coordinators, even if by that point it is more to share progress or photos of thriving gardens than to ask for advice.

Community Coordinators also offer popular optional workshops throughout the year in addition to the two mandatory ones. Past workshops have covered winterizing gardens with cover crops, preparing beds for spring, beneficial garden insects, and growing plants in recycled containers. These workshops, along with plant distribution days, also serve as opportunities for participants to connect with other gardeners in their area. 

Growing Gardens offers childcare, leading kids through garden-related activities and games, for participants with children during these workshops. “This way, there is a space for parents to focus on learning, but kids are also engaged in an activity involved with gardening,” Rashae said. “Kids and families can come back together and talk about what they learned, connecting in those ways at home.”

In addition to Community Coordinators, Garden Advisors — also often past participants — are volunteers who work in each neighborhood to offer additional peer-to-peer mentorship. Participants are able to indicate specific characteristics they would like in an advisor — such as someone female-identifying, or someone who likes working with kids — and Growing Gardens will connect them. Garden Advisors visit gardens and help participants address any challenges that arise. With experience in their own gardens and from working with participants throughout the region, they keep participants up to date on common issues and weather patterns. Garden Advisors don’t always have all the answers, but are able to do research and source ideas from their network of participants, relieving some of the time burden for new gardeners.

While Garden Advisors are sources of expertise, they strive to develop reciprocal relationships with participants. The role often helps advisors further develop their own gardening practices through gaining new knowledge and renewing their excitement for gardening by watching it grow in someone else. 

“Everyone is trying new things, we learn from them,” Joanie O’Brien, who volunteers as a Garden Advisor with her husband Mike, said.

“The biggest part of the job is just to listen,” Mike said. “Our favorite part is how excited people are, and how connected they are to their gardens.”

Beginning a gardening practice can be intimidating, and Garden Advisors demonstrate that mistakes are part of the learning process. No one has all the answers or the ability to control nature, and every gardening season is different. 

Garden Advisors and participants have often developed friendships that last far beyond the three-year program. Many have found that gardening together allows people to get to know each other deeply in a short amount of time, by providing a foundation of a shared passion and often leading to conversations about things such as family history, appreciation of nature, and food traditions. 

“Even if a visit is only an hour and a half, you get to know people,” Joanie said. “Seeing someone in a garden breaks a barrier, you’re sharing a meaningful experience and connecting about what makes it important and enjoyable.”

“We all feel like a part of something bigger,” Mike said of advisors and participants working together. “It’s a positive circle.”

What Comes Next?

While the program only lasts three years, the aim of these three years is to support participants in creating experiences for themselves that cultivate a lasting love for gardening and practice of growing their own food. Garden Advisors and participants have both described observing a highly increased sense of confidence over the course of the program.

When the three years are up, gardens continue flourishing, allowing participants not only to continue supplying fresh food for their households but to propagate the power of growing through their communities. 

The official end of the program does not mean the end of a relationship. “We always have seeds and plants to share,” Rashae said. Community Coordinators set aside time during plant distributions for past participants to pick up extra plants, and keep people informed about volunteer opportunities and celebration events to stay connected.

With the support of their Community Coordinators, participants who have made a significant commitment to their gardens are encouraged to become Garden Advisors or Community Coordinators themselves.

Even if participants do not take on an official position, many of them have become leaders in their communities by starting seed exchanges, sharing extra produce with neighbors, or establishing themselves as sources of advice and tips. “Everyone knows to come to me for vegetables,” Bonnie said. “Even the little things, people still want that.”

Growing Gardens believes that this kind of community-building and resource sharing is a crucial step in creating more just food systems. The small things, like growing your first tomato, can have big impacts when your kid loves the taste, you look forward to waking up in the morning to check on the plant’s progress, and you show your neighbor how to do it themself. Home Gardens strives to create a foundation of support for these kinds of positive cycles to persist, with the knowledge that participants already possess the necessary creativity and community care for them to unfold.

Whether or not you qualify for the program, the Home Gardens team hopes that their work serves as an example of the power of growing your own food. “Give yourself the opportunity to grow, and help others do the same,” Antonio said.


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Cultivating Resilience: How Home Gardens is Transforming Lives

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