There seems to be something elemental about gardening, even to a third-generation urbanite like me. Obviously, putting a few geraniums in clay pots on your porch or some petunias in your flower bed is a lot different than trying to manage hundreds of acres of soybeans or corn. However, just the act of planting something in the dirt and watching it thrive (one hopes) gives you a feeling of being more connected with nature and with a simpler, closer-to-the-Earth way of living. Already this Spring I’ve gone from mourning the mysterious demise of my salvia to rejoicing in the return to bloom of my hibiscus, reminding me again of the inexorable rhythms of life.

After all, if you go back far enough, almost all of us are descended from folks who depended directly on the land for their livelihood. It’s only been since the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that lots of people started to leave the farm, by choice or not, and head for jobs in the towns and cities. We all know, of course, what vast political and social changes that movement has wrought in the couple of hundred years since.

Fast forward to East Dallas in 1999, where most of us live in a leafy if very urbanized environment. We’re fortunate in this part of the country to have enough room for yards and gardens, as well as a warm and sunny climate. As a result, lots of people around here enjoy gardening, especially once they discover, after a little trial and error, that it’s really pretty easy. In fact, a big trend now is “xeriscape” gardening, a water-conserving, low-maintenance use of drought- and heat-tolerant native Texas plants.                                                                   

Among the most interesting sights you can see in East Dallas is one of the community gardens in our midst. Just a few weeks ago, I went to the annual plant sale at the East Dallas Community Garden, a half acre on Fitzhugh just north of Bryan. Owned by the Communities Foundation of Texas and managed by Gardeners in Community Development, small plots are leased out to nearby residents, mostly members of the local Cambodian and Laotian communities. Many of these recent immigrants were farmers before coming here, and the yield from these small plots is said to be about four times that from a typical home vegetable garden. The gardeners produce food mainly for their own consumption, including vegetables not easily found outside Southeast Asia.                                                        

I think these community gardens are a terrific idea and ought to be nurtured in every sense of the word. It’s not just that it gives the gardeners a chance to put their skills to work and help support their families, it also promotes variety and diversity in our urban landscape. New York City just had a big controversy about the City wanting to sell off hundreds of community gardens which have been established on City-owned vacant lots. At the last minute, several non-profits stepped in to buy 112 lots so the gardens could be preserved, most of which are in neighborhoods most in need both of open green space and an augmented healthy food supply. This raised thorny environmental issues — trying to preserve some open space in the nation’s densest city — and social issues, since most of the gardens to be sold off were in economically disadvantaged, and mostly minority, neighborhoods.            

So next time you pick a home-grown tomato out of your back yard or plant some impatiens in the front to dress up your house, take a moment to reflect on where we’ve come from and how important our gardens, and our connection with nature, are — whether here in East Dallas or anywhere on the planet.

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