Guest column by Valerie Vissia
Living and working in a small community is not always what you might imagine. Even after living in the same small town for 17 years, and working for the local conservation district for two, I still feel like a bit of a “newbie.”
One way I’ve worked to cultivate a sense of community in my small town is through community gardening. Recently, the conservation district where I work – the Lincoln County CD – partnered with the City of Davenport to break ground on a water conservation and community garden project. It was slow going at first, but after seeking out the help of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), the renovation went quickly.
ACGA publishes basic guidelines for community garden development, which helped to keep our process on the right track. Once the grants started coming in and the advertising seemed to be working, our community rallied!
Excavation of the existing garden, all the electrical work and permits, all the soil and compost for the new garden boxes, concrete for the gazebo slab, and the labor to build the gazebo were donated! Support for the project was coming in from unexpected segments of the community, too – like high school friends of people I work with, neighbors living by the garden, and husbands and contractors who just wanted to help. These were people who volunteered on weekends or holidays and came back out to the site after their regular workday was done. They all came together to make it happen.
We have used many different fundraising campaigns over the last two years to support the renovation and have had success with our “Sponsor a Space” campaign, in which residents sponsor the purchase of a bench, raised bed, or an engraved brick for the garden. Even as we wrap up the work in the garden, we are still getting requests to sponsor engraved pavers. The latest brick purchased was from a woman who just moved back to our little community. She had already purchased her own brick for her and her husband, but came back for one more brick. Her parents were the local conservation district’s Farmer of the Year in 1967, she told us, and she thought they should have a brick in the garden too.
The whole conservation district team was at the garden shoveling gravel into wheelbarrows and filling in the gaps one last time when the nearest neighbor to the garden walked over to chat with our intern. “You guys worked so hard on this and it looks so nice. Who are you guys?” she asked.
Of all the things I was hoping the garden renovation would accomplish, I never thought it would have helped to heighten public awareness of conservation districts. Not only has it done that, but it has also empowered our community members to improve their own yards and acreage with conservation practices. I think we found the community we were looking for.