Community Gardens Sprout as Advocates Look to Eat Healthier, Save Money, and Weed Out Urban Blight

There's this bumblebee feasting one late August afternoon, diving into scented blossoms, drowsing, buzzing, dipping again.

But it's not on some tree-lined suburban neighborhood, or in an arboretum. This bee is part of the Community Nourishment Garden in Tyson Park, improbably placed on the bank in front of the wire-fenced tennis courts, where thick institutional grass and weedy drainage ditches once ruled. Even with summer coming to a close, there are still cherry tomatoes ready to be plucked from staked greenery, waving masses of purple and green basil, some of it blooming. There's sage, cardinal flowers, evidence of bygone yellow squash plants, all artfully arranged around a curved, brick-lined path, leading up to arbors for grapes and berries. Under the auspices of the City of Knoxville, working in cooperation with three Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee Americorps volunteers and maintained by community volunteers, this garden has been yielding food for Bridge Refugee Settlement Services since a couple months after its April 18 groundbreaking.

Right now, it's strange to see edibles in a public spot, just yards from the traffic rush of Concord Drive.

But the idea of communally growing food in shared areas is burgeoning throughout Knoxville, from the newly formed More Community Gardens Coalition that drew 40 people to its first meeting in June, to Redeemer Church of Knoxville's Rohm and Haas mini-grant-sponsored effort to grow produce for its Food in the Fort program at Beardsley Community Farm, to the group at St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church in Farragut that's wrapping up its first year of growing food for a battered women's shelter and a food pantry.

There may be many more city-sponsored garden projects in the works, says David Massey, City Office of Neighborhoods coordinator. "There is a lot of interest, and we've had a lot of community groups coming to the city to inquire about the availability of city-owned land for community gardens, orchards, and green spaces," Massey says. "It may be because of the economy, or the increased interest in better nutrition, or the greater awareness of herbicides and pesticides. Mind you, a lot of these efforts have already been happening spontaneously without the city involved. From our point of view, it will be a matter of supporting the energy that's out there."

And there's a really decent base to build on already in the area. Besides Beardsley's education outreach and individual and community plots, there are the Green Thumb and Community Gardening programs, sponsored by the CAC, that provide free seeds and plants to those that qualify and encourage individuals and families to garden together in around 25 public housing developments.

Of course, there's also some pre-existing discouragement to deal with. The city got one big blot on its community gardening copy book this summer. Some Parkridgers and city-dwelling kids who called themselves the City Rangers planted veggies in a patch and some planters at their local park. The effort had not yet received official approval when city workers dropped a tree on the garden and completely mulched over the planters. Within a week, apologies had been issued and the park received some other long-overdue repairs in the bargain.

That unfortunate incident, while it did earn some publicity for city gardening, however negative, was not the inspiration for his department's vigorous interest in community gardens, says Massey. "We've had community gardens on our radar screen at least since June 2009," he says, "which is when we started a deep involvement in ways to address vacant and blighted properties in a more effective way."

And for the record, while the Parkridge Park garden will be grandfathered in, the city won't be making a habit of similar projects. "We're not encouraging people to put community gardens in city parks, which already have another use," Massey says, "but rather to locate gardens on vacant, blighted lots, where they'll have the multiple benefits of healthy food, community building, and reversing the trends caused by urban blight."

But first, the city and county will have to leap some logistic hurdles. And there may be no stronger evidence that community gardening has the potential to become really big in Knoxville than the lack of infighting among the many constituent groups and potential overseers. "City Community Development director Madeline Rogero and Knox County Community Development Director Grant Rosenburg have both been a dream to work with," says Stephanie Welch, director of community development and planning at the Knox County Health Department, chair of the Food Policy Council, and facilitator of More Community Garden Coalition, which is currently working to put together an inventory of what's going on in the world of community gardening.

"There are many policy barriers to community gardening, and these are things the FPC will help address," she says. "We're actually going to meet with folks from the city and county over the next couple of months. It would be nice if we could get it worked out by the next growing season."

Massey's Office of Neighborhoods in particular and the Community Development department in general are fully engaged already. "Right now, agriculture is a permitted use in most residential zones, but it's not clear that it would be legal to put up a garden shed or storage shed," Massey says. "These kind of buildings would be considered accessory buildings and there's no primary building, so we may have to put up some sort of proposal to City Council. There's also an issue about how to get water on site, to have KUB come in and install water when there's no building permit."

Even thornier are the lease/sell arrangements for lots owned by the city. "These are more difficult issues involving liabilities, protocols dealing with surplus properties. It's going to take six months or longer to work it out, with the emphasis on ‘on longer,'" Massey says. "But we're really committed, particularly in distressed neighborhoods. It's just really important to support community-based efforts, to improve the quality of life in a neighborhood however you can."