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A Short Tour of Community Gardens

Our garden at home has finally started yielding its bounty, which means we have more tomatoes than we know what to do with and are engaged in constant battle with rabbits to preserve our harvest. Now is the season when we get to enjoy the fruits of our time spent planting and preparing the soil, with fresh bites from the garden in every meal. It’s a reminder of the growing season and of nature’s wonders.

The fresh veggies making their way from my yard to my plate has had me thinking more about community gardens recently, especially with the rising costs of food making harvests more important for many of us. Interestingly, though, it was not my own garden or food prices that made me look into the history of gardens in the United States. It was, of all things, a comic book.

Most people who know me know that I am obsessed with comics, especially propaganda comics from World War II and early 1950s horror comics that drew the ire of parents and the federal government alike. I recently picked up a copy of this little gem from 1943:

World's Finest Comics #11 cover, with superheroes working in garden

World’s Finest Comics is pretty unremarkable, except for its run of war-themed covers in the early 1940s. Issue #11 here features Superman, Batman and Robin working away in a “victory garden.” (Oh, how nice it would be to have the super-speed of Superman or the ingenuity of Batman to take care of weeding and tilling, right?) Victory gardens, as they were called, were home gardens that the US government encouraged people to start during the war, ostensibly to increase food production at home when so much produce had to be sent to troops overseas, though their significance went far deeper, as we will learn below.

Many people trace community gardens today back to these victory gardens. But the community gardening movement actually started much further back, and the government was not as “super”-supportive of victory gardens as Superman and Batman were – at least early on.

The 1890s – Community Gardens Begin

According to Smithsonian Gardens, part of the Smithsonian Institution, community gardens trace their roots back to Detroit, Michigan, in the 1890s. The economic depression of 1893 hit the city hard, particularly affecting its largely immigrant population. Worried about food shortages and high unemployment, Detroit’s progressive Mayor Hazen Pingree started a public works program for jobs and then encouraged the city to use vacant lots to grow vegetables for the coming winter. “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” as they were called were called, were effective and popular.

Mayor Pingree had another motive besides providing food. The depression had increased economic inequality in the city, and the response of Detroit’s wealthy citizens was to provide charity to address the deep challenges faced by the workers most impacted. Rather than addressing the problems, charity drives fostered a system of patronage, leaving low-income Detroiters dependent on small amounts of help from rich benefactors. Pingree’s gardens were steps toward a more equitable solution, providing spaces for Detroiters facing hunger and poverty to exercise agency. It was a movement for both food security and economic justice. As the Detroit Free Press wrote in 1935, “Pingree’s potato patches broke the back of hunger. They were nationally acclaimed and copied. They revealed a city of boundless energy and industry unwilling to live on doles (the meager charity of the wealthy).”

family tends garden in Detroit 1890s

A family tends a Pingree Potato Patch in Detroit. Image courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University


Turn of the Century and World War I

Pingree’s model was copied in many major cities. As the depression eased, schools turned to gardens both to supplement nutrition and to help an increasingly urban population of children connect back to nature and learn responsibility and the value of work. Perhaps the most famous advocate for the school garden movement was Fannie Griscom Parsons, a tireless leader whose work led to the creation of gardens and farms for children throughout New York City in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Parsons famously wrote,

I did not start a garden simply to grow a few vegetables and flowers. The garden was used as a means to teach [children] in their work some necessary civic virtues; private care of public property, economy, honesty, application, concentration, self-government, civic pride, justice, the dignity of labor, and the love of nature by opening to their minds the little we know of her mysteries, more wonderful than any fairy tale.

With World War I, the gardening movement gained a lot of ground and new support, this time from the US War Gardening Commission. With this fervor, the Commission reported that by 1917, there were more than 3.5 million war gardens across the country, helping supply needed fruits and vegetables during the lean years of the war.

As should be clear by now, though, the gardens were about more than just food. The war gardens of World War I became a symbol of community agency and renewal, especially for African American residents, whose urban neighborhoods were neglected by governments after the war. Drawing on their horticultural skills and passion for beautifying their communities, African American gardeners in Detroit, Philadelphia and other cities scaled up their post-war efforts, even holding contests for residents with the best gardens. These gardens became an important lifeline during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

World War II – Victory Gardens

The World War I gardens planted the seed (ahem) for the victory gardens of World War II. By this point in agricultural history in the US, the government was more reluctant to support gardens. As the Smithsonian notes, most officials thought that large-scale agriculture was more effective. What ultimately convinced the government to promote victory gardens, though, wasn’t a compelling argument about production. Rather, it was the awareness after decades of use that gardens play a powerful role in bringing communities together, improving relationships between neighbors and strengthening morale.

The gardens ended up proving effective in both areas, though. They strengthened communities and they provided an abundance of food – as much as 40 percent of vegetables grown in the US by 1944.

Hidden Depths

The brightly-colored produce, however, hid some gnarled roots, and Superman, Batman and Robin’s smiling faces on the cover of World’s Finest Comics #11 belied deep injustices when it came to gardens and farms in the United States in the 1940s.

As World War II began, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal and internment of Japanese Americans. While in public press, the order was motivated by fear of spies (a belief that had no basis in reality), the internment campaign had more sinister roots. Japanese Americans, especially in California, had drawn on their deep agricultural knowledge to build successful farming businesses upon their arrival in the US. It was these farms, and the valuable land that Japanese Americans owned, that drove some to call for internment.

Indeed, one of the first documented lobbying efforts to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast came from none other than the Salinas Valley Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, which sent a lobbyist to Washington, DC, to argue for forced removal of Japanese American farmers.

By 1942, with Japanese Americans interned and their land under government supervision, white farmers began seizing control of their farms, and the managing secretary of the Western Growers Protective Association reported “considerable profits were realized” by member growers “because of the Japanese removal.”

While incarcerated at the internment camps, many Japanese Americans continued using their skills, however, and developed camp gardens. Despite the desolate landscape of many of the camps, internees used their wisdom, creativity and tenacity to start thousands of thriving gardens. These gardens helped to supplement their diet, but perhaps more importantly, the gardens served as a symbol of resistance against internment, an attempt to hold on to community and traditions and to refuse the dehumanization of internment.

Gardens that had once been indicators of successful business and wealth for immigrant families now, through acts of protest against the injustice of internment, were revealed as symbols of courage, strength and resilience.

Sowing and Reaping

Still today, community gardens carry these multiple layers of meaning. On the one hand, they provide fresh, healthy food. But on a much deeper level, as researchers Rina Ghose and Margaret Pettygrove report, community gardens are spaces where community is formed and citizenship is fostered. They are a protest against powers that control food, land and jobs. And they can be spaces that bear witness to new kinds of communities, new kinds of relationships and new understandings of the economy.

Martin Luther once wrote that farming is an act that imitates God’s creation of the world. By digging into the soil, planting and nurturing crops, we are imitating God’s hands-on approach to making the world. But the long history of gardens in the United States – from immigrants tending “Pingree’s Potato Patches” to investments in gardens for under-served urban children to beautification of segregated neighborhoods and the witness of camp gardens – points to an expanded understanding of how this work imitates God’s creative endeavors.

Yes, we are gifted with the opportunity to witness the Creator God in action as crops take root, but on a deeper level, the community that is nurtured and grown at the garden testifies to the ongoing work of God as the redeemer of the world, reconciling us to one another and building a just world where all are fed.

We aren’t superheroes, but we don’t need to be. The world does not need superheroes as much as it needs neighbors willing to work together, to participate in the restoration of just relationships and communities, asserting together that our neighborhoods are worth investing in and that each and every one of us can play a part. As we’ve learned time and again, gardens can be sacred spaces where neighbors build relationships with one another, assert their pride and dignity, and create a bountiful harvest for the community to enjoy. The hard work of tilling, planting, weeding and watering yields far more than vegetables. It can nourish the growth of communities in profound, life-giving ways.

As we harvest from gardens this season and get ready for planting next spring, this history begs the questions: what are we really sowing? And what new wonders might neighbors working together for the transformation of the landscape and the community reap?


If you are interested in starting your own community garden, or finding new ways to expand the garden your community has, check out ELCA World Hunger’s Community Gardens How-To Guide, available in English and Spanish! You can order hard copies from the ELCA World Hunger resources page too!


Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is the program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger.

A Time for Everything: Picking Your Garden

There is a Time for Everything, and a Season for Every Activity Under Heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1

Pointing Forward:

So let’s consider the 5 P’s of gardening:




Picking, and

Putting to bed.

In previous posts, we’ve planned, we’ve planted and perspired. Now it’s time to reap some rewards by picking our gardens.

Whenever I think of harvesting, I am in awe that God has provided us with the miracle of vegetable and fruit growth.  What is even more remarkable is that the growing and developing plants only need a few simple things to make it all work. These include sunlight, soil and water. Here is a prayer from Evangelical Lutheran Worship Pastoral Care Occasional Services, Readings and Prayers (published by Augsburg Press) that helps express the thanksgiving we feel during the harvest season. Praying this prayer may be a fitting way to begin our harvest.

Most Glorious God, according to your wisdom the deep waters are opened up and clouds drop gentle moisture. We praise you for the return of planting and harvest seasons, for the fertility of the soil, for the harvesting of the crops and for all other blessings that you in your generosity pour out on all people. Give us a full understanding of your mercy, that our lives may show respect and care for your creation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Picking is the time when all your hard work starts yielding benefits you can savor! Or, if you have chosen to provide food for your local food bank, this is the time when your perspiration leads to inspired giving! Harvesting may also be a good time to meditate on the simple yet profound words of Psalm 67:6: “The land yields its harvest; God, our God blesses us.” God has blessed us with the opportunity to grow food for ourselves and for our neighbors.

As we contemplate Psalm 67:6 – that God blesses us with the harvest and the miracle of growth of food to pick, share, and eat –  we may also consider when it is best to harvest so that we get the most out of what we have planned, planted, and now are planning to pick. There are some simple guidelines for choosing the right time. Generally, for the best flavor and texture, most vegetables are best harvested just before they are fully mature.  If we let our vegetables become over-mature in the ground, they often lose their best flavor, texture and nutrition.

So, let’s consider a couple of examples of when to harvest:

Tomatoes: You should harvest tomatoes individually when they reach the right color. If these are red tomatoes, they should be close to fully red. They should also be pretty soft, but not mushy when you lightly squeeze them. The tomato would have the distinctive tomato aroma and should separate from the vine easily when you grasp the tomato and give it a slight twist.

Eggplant: Eggplant is best when it is picked a little bit short of total ripeness. The eggplant should have a definite firmness rather than be soft or too hard. The outer skin should shine. It is better to cut the eggplant from that plant to preserve the flesh of the fruit, rather than to pluck it by hand.

Radishes: Radishes tend to mature quickly, so they should be monitored often. When their shoulders start showing above the soil level, they are ready to pull. If you let them grow too big, they may become tough. Radishes are crops that you may select to grow in succession; that means you may want to plant several times in the season so they can be harvested throughout the summer.

For more harvesting suggestions, you might consider accessing the following website:

Of course, if vegetables do get over-ripe, they are still usable for a number of things. If nothing else, you can turn your over-ripe vegetables and fruits into compost for use as a soil enhancer or fertilizer.

Thinking of the tomatoes and eggplant we are harvesting above, our family likes to make lasagna without noodles. One alternative is to use slices of eggplant to substitute for the noodles. This also provides an opportunity for those who aren’t able to tolerate gluten to enjoy lasagna. Please find an Eggplant Lasagna Recipe below if you’d like to give it a try. Eggplant and tomatoes from this year’s harvest may be incorporated into the recipe. Also, with last year’s crop, or even this year’s harvest, you could produce the tomato sauce called for in the recipe.

Linking Back

Speaking of compost, let’s link back to our “Planting” where we considered composting. This might be a good time to access the composted material you started earlier in the planning and planting season to use as a fertilizer for the plants you just harvested. As we harvest some of the early vegetables and fruits of our garden, this is a good reminder that to continue the harvest as long as possible, we need to provide adequate water and fertilize the ground every 3-4 weeks.

This is also a good time to check back to our blog on “Perspiring” to consider the steps in keeping your garden in good shape. These are:

  1. Watering;
  2. Fertilizing;
  3. Weed control; and
  4. Pest control.

As you harvest the early fruits of your labor, it is valuable to check your watering, weed control and pest control as well to see if you need to make any adjustments in the patterns you have developed to keep your garden in good shape.

Until next time, remember,

There is a Time for Everything, and a Season for Every Activity Under Heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1

Blessings to you!

Eggplant Lasagna

Minutes to Prepare: 45

Minutes to Cook: 45

Number of Servings: 10 (1 to 1 1/2 cup each)


1 lb extra lean ground turkey
1 lb Italian sausage
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh tomatoes chopped
2 26 oz jars pasta sauce
2 eggplants, peeled and thinly sliced
1 8oz bag shredded mozzarella cheese
1 c Parmesan cheese


In a large pan, brown ground turkey and Italian sausage with onion and garlic. Drain all of the grease from pan. Add pasta sauce and tomatoes. Bring to a boil. Lower temperature and allow to simmer for 30 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally. Preheat the oven to broil. Meanwhile, wash and peel eggplant. Slice eggplant into thin strips length wise and then in 2-inch squares. Place eggplant on an ungreased cookie sheet and allow to broil for 8 minutes (with the oven door slightly open) or until eggplant is very tender. Grease a large lasagna pan and preheat oven to 350.

In a small bowl combine mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese. Place a layer of eggplant in the bottom of the pan, top eggplant with a layer of meat sauce, top meat sauce with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, top cheese with another layer of eggplant and continue layering until all meat sauce has been used. Your top layer should be eggplant. Top the last layer of eggplant with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until meat sauce is bubbly. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before you serve.

To make this vegan you may substitute the ground turkey with vegan ground turkey and the Italian sausage with vegan sausage.

You may also choose to replace the cheeses with non-dairy options. I suggest you visit your local natural foods store to find equivalents.

The original recipe as written is gluten-free. If you substitute the meats or the cheeses, be sure to read the label and watch for wheat flour ingredients if you wish to maintain the gluten-free status of the original recipe.

Nutritional Information (per 1 cup serving)

Calories: 155.5

Total Fat: 8.9 g

Cholesterol: 44.3 mg

Sodium: 195.5 mg

Carbohydrates: 6.3 g

Dietary Fiber: 1.8 g

Protein: 12.5 g

In this series by guest writer Ethan Bergman, we will consider the 5 P’s of gardening – planning, planting, perspiring, picking, and putting to bed – over the course of the next few months. Ethan is a Master of Divinity student in the Distributive Learning program at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. Bergman is also the associate dean in the College of Education and Professional Studies and professor of food science and nutrition at Central Washington University, Ellensburg. He was named CWU Distinguished University Professor in 2001-2002 and was named by the Washington State Dietetic Association as Outstanding Registered Dietitian of the Year in 2000. He is a past delegate and past President of the American Dietetic Association as well as speaker of the Academy’s House of Delegates. Bergman also has served on the Academy’s Educator’s Task Force on Education Reform in Dietetics Education and on the Evidence-Based Practice Committee. He earned his doctorate from Washington State University.