Oliver and Lisa Douglas, the characters in the long-running 1960s TV series "Green Acres" who said goodbye to city life and moved from Park Avenue, New York, to Hooterville and bought a ramshackle farm to embrace farm life, could have stayed put. That's because the burgeoning awareness of how eating local is better on the wallet, the taste buds and the environment is encouraging city dwellers to band together to create urban gardens.
And for good reason. According to David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher, every calorie of energy in the food we eat takes ten times as much fossil-fuel energy to produce. Add to that the millions of tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used by farmers that end up in our rivers and lakes. Plus it's been estimated that our long-distance food distribution, which brings vegetables and fruits from as far away as Chile to our local supermarket, eats up an energy equivalent of 423 gallons of gasoline per person.
"We were interested in how to be sustainable, so our environmental group thought of ideas on how we could achieve that," says Robin Rich, a congregant of the Temple Israel in Miller. "We thought we should plant potatoes on the roof or get windmills."
But after more deliberation, Temple members decided to partner with the Marquette Park United Methodist Church, which had founded the Miller Beach Farmers' Market a few years back.
"Their pastor, Reverend Tracey Leslie, and our rabbi, Stanley Halpern, formed a network called Faith in the Earth," Rich says. "We started a sustainable speakers' series and also developed a community garden on the property of the temple."
Part of Faith in the Earth's mission is to "work together in partnership, as a network of faith-based organizations, to teach the principles of sustainable living to ourselves and our children, to build our communities in ways that nourish families and the environment, and to share information about ways to ease the transition to a cleaner energy future."
Rich, who volunteers as a liaison with the temple, says that since starting last year the number of people gardening has doubled -- from seven to 14. And while Rich's family grows vegetables in one of the 16 plots, she works on the plot dedicated to raising produce for a local soup kitchen. Besides that, extra produce from all the gardens will be donated to a homeless veterans' shelter this year.
"One of the things that makes the temple grounds perfect for the gardens is that we have a water connection," Rich says. "That's one of the major issues for community gardens."
Three years ago, a vacant easement enticed the members of the Warren-Vigo Block Club, named after two streets that face each other in Miller Beach, to create a community garden.
"The idea grew out of our block group that's been in existence for over 30 years," says Karin Kirulis, who, with her husband John, gardens on one of the lots. "But the area -- which is part of Maple Avenue that doesn't go through -- was filled with stones. I thought oh, this will take a whole year just to clean up."
But it went much more quickly than that.
Jeff Bruninga, a neighbor who fellow gardeners describe as having a green thumb, rototilled the land and large amounts of compost were brought in.
"We started planting that same year," says Kirulis, noting that initially the plots were 10 by 12 feet. "Some are bigger now and some people have a couple of lots."
Kirulis says that part of the fun of a community plot is being able to garden together.
"My garden has a sunny area so I grow herbs and last year I put in a couple of potatoes and they seem to do well so I'm putting more in. I also grow tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers."
The yard surrounding Sue Davey's house is shady, so she and her husband Jeff Bruninga use the front of their garden plot to grow flowers.
"My husband is Dutch and he likes bulbs," Davey says. "And that's how we have all those flowers like tulips, daffodils, dahlias and nasturtiums. We also grow cool-weather vegetables like lettuce as well as lots of heirloom tomatoes, peppers and string beans. And we've done really well with kale and Swiss chard."
The water for the garden comes from the Davey-Bruninga house, and Davey says that they fortify the somewhat sandy soil (the Warren-Vigo Block Garden is close to Lake Michigan) with horse manure.
Karen Jensen says that many of the gardeners are learning as they go along.
"We are very lucky that the neighbors on either side had no objections to seeing gardens where there had been vacant land," says Jensen, whose husband Kurt also gardens. "We have grown tomatoes, kale, Swiss chard, green and wax beans, cucumbers, radishes and mustard greens. When there are extras, we sometimes trade with other gardeners."
Asked if she had any advice for others wanting to participate in a community garden, Davis recommends making sure there's a water supply. And she has another suggestion, learned from experience.
"Last year, unfortunately we had a load of manure with a lot of grass in it, which wasn't good," she says. "So using manure that's been composted is a good idea."