Contents: July/August 2002
Congregations make giving organic
by Donald E. Skinner
On any given Sunday morning in July it's a pretty sure bet where the children of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, New York, will be: in the organic vegetable garden.
The garden was created three years ago as a way to help the Long Island congregation's children, youth, and adults connect with each other and give something back to the larger community.
"We grow tomatoes and wonderful yellow summer squash and pole beans and lettuce and radishes, and I'm from Oklahoma, so we had to have okra, too," says Eva Ceskava, religious educator. "It's been great fun. We call it the 'giving garden' because we give everything away." The produce goes to a community pantry.
The children prepare and plant the garden in April with adult help, and then spend part of each summer Sunday morning weeding and picking off bugs. Later in the summer there's produce to harvest. Not all the produce makes it back into the building. "We lose a few cherry tomatoes along the way," Ceskava says.
Huntington also has a flower garden next to the vegetables. The children take flowers to people who are ill or infirm.
Many congregations are finding that gardening is a great way not only to bring generations together but also to give religious education programs an environmental focus while doing something good for the community. With a few dollars' investment children can learn about nature, worms, composting, organic farming, and that two zucchini vines are enough and three are way too many.
About a mile and a half from downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are a dozen garden plots, about ten by twenty feet each, created on land where abandoned houses once stood. For many years neighbors planted and worked the gardens, using the produce themselves. Then, as people got older, moved away, or lost interest, members of the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church eight blocks away picked up the slack. Neighbors (and church volunteers) still get some of the produce, but much of it now goes to a local homeless shelter for which the church cooks meals and to a food bank the church supports.
"We just have hordes of green beans and tomatoes and cabbages and lots of zucchini," says Allegheny member John Meikle, who has long been involved with the garden. "This is basic gardening," he emphasizes. "We don't worry about aesthetics. There are other community gardens in the neighborhood, but they're more control-oriented. At those, if you don't do it right you can't garden. We've got no parameters like that. Just get in and do it!
"And it's all organic," Meikle says. "We plant three of everything. One for us, one for the birds, and one for the bugs." Manure is free from suburban horse farms.
Meikle grew up on a farm in Scotland and feels renewed by the gardening. "I've always done something with the soil," he says. "It fulfills me. However you define spiritual connection, I get a buzz from this. And here we combine our social justice work with it. It changes you when you do this kind of work."
A couple of times the garden has served as Sunday morning sanctuary for the sixty-one-member Allegheny congregation. "We processed down to the garden and did a service, with singing, readings, and even a little bit of digging," says the Rev. Art McDonald. "The garden is a wonderful community-builder for those who participate. All sorts of relationships happen. People get to know each other better. They become more conscious of our connection to local hunger issues. And it's another way for us to plug into our neighborhood."
Garden organizers say it's important to have volunteers who will not only plant the seeds but also be available through the long, hot summer to water and weed. Volunteers tend to be most plentiful in spring and then again at harvest time, but it's more difficult to find them in midsummer.
"You need to get a core group of people committed to it," says Ceskava. "We always have a great beginning. Then once the garden's going the maintenance has to be done." She says the garden costs less than $50 a year. Rototilling and some other services are donated. Compost is free. "The children look forward to it. And now it's such a part of the summer program it would be difficult not to do it."
The sixty-one-member Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Green-ville, North Carolina, has a tiny two-by-ten-foot raised bed for children. Last year they planted a spaghetti garden, learning about the plants that go into spaghetti sauce––tomatoes, herbs, onions, etc. This year it's an "edible flowers and herbs" garden, says Malaika King-Albrecht, religious education committee chair.
Lessons start in March when children take home seeds to plant in egg cartons. In April seedlings go into the ground. The garden is good for other lessons as well. "I made garbage soup out of egg shells, coffee grounds, and other materials," says King-Albrecht. "The kids asked, "Do we have to eat it?' We used it to amend the soil and they learned a little about natural fertilizers."
Just down the street from the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, in the very urban Pico-Union neighborhood, is a lot that used to sprout cast-off furniture. Now it flourishes with fruits, vegetables, flowers, and people.
The garden was jointly organized in 1995 by the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry of Los Angeles, an organization supported by many UU congregations; by Sunset Hall, a Unitarian Universalist retirement residence; and by the parent center from nearby Hoover School, the nation's second largest elementary school. Seniors, schoolchildren, teachers, and neighborhood residents all participate in garden activities. Two grants totaling $15,000 from the UU Funding Program helped make the garden and its programs possible.
The garden includes family plots, a shade structure, and benches, and has become a gathering point for the neighborhood, where average household income is about $12,000 and many people are new immigrants. The garden is used not only to grow produce but also for twice-weekly art classes for youth and their parents, community barbecues, and birthday parties. Children from the school and the Urban Ministry's student education program, "Aprendamos," learn about nature and growing cycles. Another major benefit is that it helps people make connections with each other, as they garden, take classes, or simply sit, says Karan Neal, of the UU Urban Ministry. "Neighborhoods often disintegrate because people are so busy with their lives. The garden helps build a bond between people. We're using it to change lives."