A trowel doesn’t mean much to most people. A rather ordinary garden tool, it’s used to dig a small hole in already tended soil. It’s the final resource needed for growing to begin, with a quick stab of the soil and downward pull of dirt particles from their neighboring companions, in goes the plant – tomato, broccoli, melon. For many a trowel is a tool used for growing food, but for people like Eric Williams and Kurt Goetzinger, it’s for growing communities.

Four years ago Williams stood up in a Green Omaha Coalition meeting and said, “I live in Dundee, is anyone else interested in starting a garden.” At the time he was an apartment dweller in the area and wanted an opportunity to grow his own food. Four years later, he is a homeowner and founding board member of the Dundee Community Garden. He credits the garden with deepening his commitment to the people, places and businesses within Dundee.

“We are planting vegetables, but we are growing a community,” Williams explained.

Community garden bylaws can vary by site, but for many starting one is easier than you might think. Such gardens are about bringing people together, strengthening the network of a neighborhood and providing opportunities for healthy food and family connectivity.

The Dundee garden rents 44 plots to individuals and has four plots solely for the purpose of donating food. Williams said there is a 20-30 person waiting list every year for the Dundee garden and they donated 750 pounds of food last year alone. 

The Benson Communty Garden started in 2011 when Kurt Goetzinger purchased the empty lot next to his home. He could’ve simply expanded his backyard, but instead he established a place for people to come together.

“I had thought about a few different things I could do with the property, but then I thought, ‘Why not open it up so more people could enjoy it.’ I had an exploratory meeting about starting a community garden and people just loved it,” Goetzinger said.

Although the Dundee Garden is full, Goetzinger is still accepting applications for plots at the Benson Garden, which will be available for planting in April. It costs $30 or $40 per year depending upon the size of the plot. Starting a garden has great rewards, but it also comes with its share of challenges. Sometimes people rent their plot, plant it then let it turn to weeds and other times people simply don’t understand how a community garden works.

“One thing we realized last year,” explained Goetzinger, “is that some people thought, ‘Oh, community garden, I can just walk in a pick whatever I want.’ Of course, that’s not how it works, so to help with that this year and to make the garden more accessible we are planting tomatoes, zucchini and a few other things on the outside of the fence so those who might need something healthy to eat can feel free to take it. All we ask is that they only take what they need and leave some for the next person.”

Patty Falcone, community health educator for Douglas County, facilitates meetings to help those who have taken up the trowel address gardening conundrums. Meetings are usually held at the Douglas and Sarpy County Extension Office, 8015 West Center Rd., in Omaha, once per month during the offseason.

“We host Community Garden Network meetings to provide an opportunity for community gardeners to connect, share ideas and problem solve,” Falcone said.

Those inspired to start or join a garden can log onto www.douglascounty-ne.gov/gardens/community-garden-info to find a host of information. Search the site to find a garden or farmer’s market in your neighborhood, access toolkits and checklists to start your own garden or search an address to see who owns the land and if it has been tested for lead.

Falcone said interest in gardening, community or otherwise, has grown considerably over the years. She used a recent seed swap as an example where nearly 300 people attended.

“Three years ago, when I first started there were 11 gardens. Now there are around 50 registered on the site and I know there are more out there,” Falcone said.

Most people probably wouldn’t say that picking up a trowel is a political act, but it’s safe to say it is a civil act intended to create, grow and nourish not only a plant but also a community.

To contact this writer, email miller.summer@gmail.com

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