In Montclair, gardening helps grow a community (Gardening for Life)

Conservationist David Wasmuth, second from right, with student interns from the Northeast Earth Coalition at the Brookdale Park Overlook Spring Restoration Project. (COURTESY JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ)

By JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ
For the Montclair Local

Gardening is more than planting seeds and growing flowers or food. It is a holistic life experience that allows us to connect with our surrounding world in many ways.

On a personal level, if you want to experience the joy of accomplishing something in life, plant a garden. Gardening is also very therapeutic, it slows us down and forces patience by putting us back in touch with the slower cycles of nature. It is an eye-opening experience.

Throughout my journey as a gardener, I have learned a lot about plants, soil and their links with wildlife. Every season I discover things that I never imagined existed or were possible. It’s a wonderful world!

Social benefits of making new friends:

Over the years, gardening has given me many lasting friends. It seems that people who garden have somehow synchronized the energy of nature with themselves.

I think this explains why gardeners have a particular positive energy that is contagious. So it’s no surprise that the people you meet on this journey become true friends.

There is also a multiplier effect: if you meet gardeners, they will introduce you to others, and your social circle will expand.

The social impact of our community gardens:

An Indian proverb says: “All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today”. Gardening involves hope and the future. When you plant a seed or a tree, you are investing in the future. You are also creating a legacy for new generations.

But at the same time, by cultivating friendships and networking with our new friends, we build community and support great causes: environmental protection, social justice, mutual aid, etc.

The COVID pandemic has brought us heightened awareness on many levels. Over the past two years, I have had great experiences meeting volunteers in our community gardens in town.

Produce from these gardens is donated to local food programs, providing those in need with fresh, nutritious food. We met for about 26 weeks during the gardening season. Most of the time we had the same people coming to plant, maintain and harvest the garden.

Most of them did not initially have the knowledge to grow food or the social impact of community gardens. Between sowing, watering, caring for the plants and harvesting, we had a very high quality time, discussing different topics and getting to know our new friends better.

I found these conversations remarkable because in this age of social media I feel like we are losing the personal touch of having face-to-face conversations outdoors with new acquaintances. During the process, we realized that we share the same concerns about our community and see social issues that affect us all.

It is inspiring to see how lucky we are in Montclair to have so many people who feel compelled to do something for our community and those in need.

Sowing the seeds of the future, inheritance:

One of the most rewarding experiences is working with our young people, listening to them and learning from them. Gardening is considered a serious and important subject in our public school curriculum. I have met some of our most dedicated teachers and worked with them to teach our children how to grow their own food or create a pollinator garden or wildlife habitat.

When our young people come to our community gardens, they are fascinated by how easy it is to grow their own food and learn where the food they eat comes from at home.

Most of them did not know that vegetables and fruits are seasonal. When told that strawberries grow in the spring, they wonder why they see them in supermarkets all year round.

This question is the beginning of a teaching moment; this brings us to talk about local food, seasonal planting and the difference between the taste of a fresh tomato and a tomato bought from the supermarket, which I call a “dead tomato”.

Young people are curious and eager to learn, assimilate and implement the things that catch their attention. We never miss an opportunity to pass on the knowledge we have to them. When they return the following week, they are amazed at how much the vegetable garden has changed in a few days.

The seeds they helped us plant have started to sprout. We see in their faces the wonder of nature and we feel rewarded because these seeds are our hope for a better future.

We are all connected and everything is connected. What we do at home has both local and global impacts.

Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, certified Essex County Master Gardener and resident of Montclair. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.

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