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What to know about community gardening in Delaware

Volunteers working on a community garden on the Delaware State University Campus.
Megan Pleasanton
Volunteers working on a community garden on the Delaware State University Campus.

Spring officially arrived this week and with it the opportunity for people to get out in the yard to plant a garden.

But many are not limiting themselves to that backyard garden; community gardens are growing in the First State, offering benefits you can’t get on your own.

This week, contributor Eileen Dallalbrida takes a closer look at community gardens in Delaware.

Contributor Eileen Dallalbrida reports on community gardens in Delaware

Community gardens are flourishing throughout the First State as gardeners connect with the soil to grow healthier produce, offset higher grocery bills, and nurture friendships with neighbors.

Gardeners are tending plots in churchyards, urban fields, college campuses, small town parks, and suburban settings. The food they grow feeds the gardeners and their families and often also benefits food pantries, soup kitchens, and passersby who are free to take what they need from boxes stocked with excess zucchini and tomatoes.

In Newark’s College Park neighborhood, Dickey Park Community Garden quickly filled its 20 lots when it was established last year with seed money from a state grant and the Conservation Advisory Commission.

In Dover, Delaware State University students are growing herbs in a downtown garden DSU inherited when it acquired Wesley College. In Lewes, where housing developments are springing up like corn in July, gardeners are planting in a fenced community plot because their beds at home have been overrun by displaced deer.

In the City of Wilmington alone, there are 28 community gardens, says Madison Walter, urban agricultural coordinator for the New Castle Conservation District. NCCD provides sustenance for community gardens through grants of up to $3,000 for such infrastructure as rain barrels, irrigation systems, tool sheds, and fencing. Gardeners also often take their own initiative, salvaging wood from dump piles to make raised beds and bartering for seeds.

“In times of economic uncertainty, we see increased interest in people wanting to grow their own food. Being able to grow your own food... gives you a sense of empowerment, a feeling of self-satisfaction.”
Madison Walter, urban agricultural coordinator for the New Castle Conservation District

“Agriculture makes a positive impact on community development. It provides food. It promotes interaction among generations of neighbors. It’s good for the environment,” Walter says.

Community gardens began to take route in the early 1980s during an economic recession. Interest is burgeoning once more due, in part, to inflation in grocery prices.

“In times of economic uncertainty, we see increased interest in people wanting to grow their own food,” Walter says. “Being able to grow your own food, even if it’s just herbs and tomatoes, gives you a sense of empowerment, a feeling of self-satisfaction.”

Duffy’s Hope, which serves at-risk children age 12-17 and their families, transformed a dormant parking lot at Ninth and Church streets in Wilmington into a flourishing urban garden. Planting to Feed, a communal garden on Bowers Street distributes produce to neighbors in need. Conscious Connections Inc. created an urban farm on abandoned lots in Brandywine Village, where it educates young people about agriculture through its Young Master Gardeners program.

Walter notes that it doesn’t require lots of land to establish a garden and start enjoying herbs, flowers, and veggies.

“A backyard, a patio, a balcony, you can make use of even the smallest spaces,” she says.

Milford Community Garden, established next to the old National Guard Armory on Walnut Street in 2018, has 22 raised beds and four rows of shared space on its 0.4-acre plot. Partnerships are helping the garden to thrive.

The water hookup was supplied by the city. LEADelaware, a national resources partnership between the University of Delaware and the Delaware Department of Agriculture, has provided expertise. The local Lions Club chipped in money.

Gardeners need not lug tools back and forth to the site. Rakes, trowels, and shovels are stowed in a tool shed, beside a mower and weed trimmer. There’s drip irrigation and a small greenhouse for starting seeds. A walk-behind tiller is on the group’s wish list.

“There also are a multitude of hoses,” says Blake Moore, a UD Cooperative Extension horticulture and natural resources agent and president of the garden board.

DSU volunteers tend to their community garden plots.
Megan Pleasanton
DSU volunteers tend to their community garden plots.

The extension service operates demonstration gardens in all three counties where ascendant gardeners can learn such skills as making their own compost and planting berries.

Moore’s personal passion is pollinators. Fruit trees and native plants are interspersed throughout the garden to attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators essential to plant growth.

The plantings also are a magnet for beneficial predatory insects, such as lady beetles—“their larva eat aphids”—and lacewings, praying mantis, and parasitic wasps. Wild bergamot, also known as bee balm, is a fragrant cousin of mint, sending out tiny purple flowers.

“It’s a summer flowering plant that attracts bumblebees, which have long tongues that are very important in pollination,” he says.

In the winter, when the garden grows drowsy, volunteers turn the compost pile, prep the soil, and tend spinach and other hardy plants that are comfortable with cold. Garlic planted in the fall grows beneath a protective blanket of straw.

The reasons that draw the gardeners to the soil might be compared to a mixed bouquet. In Dickey Park, one gardener started planting there because her yard at home is too shady to produce most crops.

Volunteers at Mt. Zion AME Church in Dover are committed to providing the community with nutritious fresh produce. Perrin Smith at Lewes Community Garden, an all-volunteer organic group, appreciates a strong fence that keeps deer out of her Swiss chard.

The bow that ties it all together is the camaraderie shared by tillers of the soil. Gardeners share recipes and swap seeds. They exchange pleasantries and composting tips. When gardeners go on vacation, neighbors in nearby raised beds take up the slack, watering the pole beans and pulling weeds.

“A garden isn’t just a place to work and grow things. It’s a place to make friends,” Smith says.

The 75 beds in the Lewes garden, established on an old ballfield at Great Marsh Park, typically fill up quickly. If there are more would-be gardeners than plots, the organizers hold a lottery.

Volunteers commit to helping to manage the garden, its website, and fundraising efforts. They help each other at monthly seminars by sharing expertise on canning, food preservation, and keeping pests at bay through such natural practices as companion plantings, as in interspersing marigolds amongst the veggies.

“A garden isn’t just a place to work and grow things. It’s a place to make friends."
Perrin Smith, a volunteer with Lewes Community Garden

Gardeners also donate produce to Teach a Person to Fish Society, a Sussex County non-profit where volunteers offer nutritious meals and the Rehoboth Community Resource Center’s food bank.

Smith, who began growing veggies in her 20s and is now retired, views gardening as a lifelong pursuit that has opened the door to meeting new people and trying new foods.

“I never would have eaten Swiss chard had I not grown it in my garden,” she says.

From the first tender radishes of spring to the hardy cabbages braving the first frost, gardening draws people close to the soil.

“Every year I can, I squeeze in another crop of lettuce in the fall, just to keep things going as long as I can,” she says.

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Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.
Tom Byrne has been a fixture covering news in Delaware for three decades. He joined Delaware Public Media in 2010 as our first news director and has guided the news team ever since. When he's not covering the news, he can be found reading history or pursuing his love of all things athletic.