by Siyi He, Associate ASLA
Every spring in early April, some residents who live in the South End neighborhood of Boston go to Berkeley Garden to sow seeds on a plot they rent. They expect to harvest some greens, such as peas, broccoli, yin tsai, taro, or bitter melon, in the later days of summer. As one of the largest community gardens in the city, this forty-year-old garden, as well as so many other community gardens in the city, brings the joy and healing of harvest to people.
Living in an urban area isolates people from nature. We rarely get to smell or touch the texture of the soil. Getting vegetables from the grocery store is the easiest and most convenient way for us, leading to city dwellers who would never know where those vegetables come from or when would be the best time to plant certain vegetables. Not to mention, every city has food deserts. Vulnerable people, such as lower income residents, might have a difficult time obtaining healthy foods grown without pesticides. A community garden could help people to add organic vegetables to their diet in an affordable way.
The community garden is not only a garden to grow food, but also a place to heal and find fulfillment in our lives. It also gives us an opportunity to participate in enriching our senses and help ground ourselves. We could go to urban gardens to get close to a form of abstract nature, but we would never know how the trees and grass in the gardens grow, because someone else takes care of them for us. The difference between the community garden and a garden in the city is participation. In the community garden, we are not only enjoying natural beauty, but we are also responsible for creating and maintaining that beauty.
Community gardens are also places that remind us of the importance of the timing. You have to follow the calendar. If you sow snap peas in June, then you will not get any snap peas. If you sow tomato seeds during April, then you will receive an abundance of tomatoes from July to September.
The garden is also a place where you can enrich your five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch). The same species of plants could give you different colors or leaf patterns to observe. Various herbs can be planted in your plot so you can simply enjoy the smell. Sage has a strong earthy smell and helps invoke calmness. Rosemary produces a smell of pine and mint, and could also help to boost your memory. The variety of mints could produce a very delightful experience. Peppermint and spearmint can refresh your mind. Apple mint, pineapple mint, strawberry mint, orange mint, and lemon mint emit delicious, fruity scents. Chocolate mint and ginger mint can give you an interesting candy aroma. And as the wind touches the leaves, you can hear the leaves whisper. Additionally, the garden attracts many birds and other wildlife as well. From early summer until autumn, you can taste the sugar peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, raspberries, watermelons, and various vegetables immediately after you harvest. Touching different textures of plants can be pleasant experiences. Feeling the leaf of lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), for example, mimics the exact same feeling of touching a real lamb’s ear. Stachys byzantina also attracts hummingbirds and bees.
It is a great accomplishment when you realize that you have worked hard as an urban farmer and get your rewards in the autumn. Seeding, weeding, watering, maintaining, harvest, and celebration become part of your urban life.
There is scientific research that shows that participating in growing vegetables in the community garden can aid in lessening the adverse effects of mental diseases, like PTSD and depression. It helps people going outdoor and have activities regularly during most of the year. Sunlight, earth, wind, the color of the plants, and every element in the garden can be a supplement that enhances mental health. Simply weeding, watering, and picking the fruits of their labor could bring people back to reality and keep themselves focused on the present, and the feeling of accomplishment during the harvest season is a strong way to boost your mood. It is also a simple but very powerful way to remind people to take care of themselves in the same way that they would take care of the plants.
Even on a small scale, you can organize a mini-edible garden on your balcony, which can also help you lift your spirits. While living such a fast-paced urban life, we can still heal from harvest.
Siyi He, Associate ASLA, is Chair of the ASLA Healthcare and Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network (PPN).