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Virginia Cooperative Extension Helps Make Gardening Accessible

From Virginia’s east coast to the farthest counties in Southwest Virginia, Virginia Cooperative Extension works to ensure all Virginians can enjoy gardening

Debby Freeman knows firsthand the impact that gardening can have on people’s lives.

As an activities director at a long-term care facility, Freeman saw residents light up whenever plants came around and witnessed a people-plant connection that spans ages and abilities.

“Putting your hands in soil has meaning and healing power. Gardening is more than just playing in the dirt, it’s more than a hobby,” said Freeman, a Norfolk Extension Master Gardener volunteer and registered horticulture therapist.

This summer, as Virginia gardeners are busy growing home vegetables, maintaining community gardens, and nurturing indoor plants, Virginia Cooperative Extension works to ensure all Virginians can enjoy the benefits of gardening.

Gaylynn Callahan, an Extension agent in the City of Hampton, helped develop the Hampton Urban Garden program, which provides city residents with access to an urban garden bed and education on basic gardening skills. Through a collaboration with the local food and nutrition program, participants also learn how to turn their harvest into nutritious meals.

Callahan and local Extension Master Gardener volunteers use community centers and local libraries to bring programming to areas identified by the local government as needing an infusion of programming.

“Growing up, these kinds of things weren’t available to me,” Callahan said. “Gardening teaches you a skill, gives you confidence, and teaches responsibility, which is important, especially for kids. We’ve had people shy away from gardening because they feel like they’ve always killed plants. When you get your first harvest, it gives you a boost of confidence.”

“Everybody should have access to gardening,” she said. “It just doesn’t have to look like a traditional garden.”

For the quarter of Americans who grow vegetables, berries, or fruit trees at home, gardening is a source of fresh produce, but gardening also has other benefits. According to the National Initiative for Consumer Horticulture, plants have a positive impact on physical, social, and mental health, and through horticulture therapy, gardening can help people with conditions like PTSD, addiction, and dementia. Community gardens, parks, and arboreta provide important community greenspace, allowing neighbors the chance to connect and build a sense of place and community.

In Southwest Virginia’s Lee County, Extension agent Amy Byington agrees that access to gardening is important to many peoples’ wellbeing.

“Gardening gives people purpose,” she said. “We have people here who feel like gardening is the one thing in the whole year they have control over. It gives people a sense of self-worth. For people with physical limitations, having something like gardening means a lot.”

Byington teaches a flexible and low-cost style of raised-bed gardening that uses plastic children’s swimming pools, which can be raised on pallets for people who can’t bend over.

“You can get a kid’s pool for $5 and just set it on pallets instead of having to build an expensive wooden bed raised off the ground,” Byington said. “We also teach other kinds of alternative gardening, such as pallet gardening and tower gardening for sweet potatoes. Gardening can be affordable.”

Byington and her team of Extension Master Gardeners also run the Lee County Garden Voucher program, which provides low-income residents with vouchers to buy garden supplies and annual education about home gardening. Through the Lee County Extension Office, they also offer a seed library where residents can borrow garden seeds.

“If you grow your own vegetables, you help to feed yourself, you don’t rely on someone else,” Byington said. “If you’re low-income and you can give somebody something, if you have extra tomatoes that you can give to a neighbor, that’s meaningful.”

Gardening is also a way to address food insecurity and help people connect back to nature, Callahan said.

“Food insecurity is an ongoing battle. During the pandemic, a lot of folks started to see gardening as something you could do when everything was shut down. It started more conversations for Extension with people asking, ‘Well how do I do this? How do I grow this?’” Callahan said.

“Gardening is a way to let folks have normalcy and a connection to the outdoors. Especially for kids in a city, it’s a chance just to stop for a minute, get your hands in the dirt, learn responsibility and confidence, and know that you can grow your own food. That’s something you take with you,” Callahan said.

Freeman recalls one particularly important example of the lifelong impact gardening can have. At a recent intergenerational gardening event, a 105-year-old community member had the opportunity to make mud pies, which were filled with flower seeds. Though she had not put her hands into the earth for a long time, she happily made mud pies along with the children excited to play with mud.

“In your life, you become a lot of things to different people,” said Freeman. “For many people, gardening is the centerpiece of who you are. It is more than a hobby. Gardening connects plants to people, and there’s healing power in that.”

Interested in learning more about gardening? Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners can help! Master Gardeners bring the resources of Virginia’s land-grant universities – Virginia Tech and Virginia State University – to the people of the commonwealth. Contact your local Master Gardeners through your Extension office or click here to learn more about gardening in Virginia and the Virginia Extension Master Gardener program.

– Written by Devon Johnson

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