Community Gardens Rise Up in the Face of Coronavirus and Covid-19

How fertile plots of land have turned into lifelines for immigrant communities impacted by COVID-19.

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A gardener tending their plot at Outgrowing Hunger in Portland, Oregon. Tove Danovich

I almost didn’t notice the gardens at all. One of them was located in the middle of a residential block full of one-story houses. Another seemed to rise out of a neglected field, a delicious outcropping of tomatoes, beans, and greens. There were wild plots with lush plants already waist-high, and tidy ones with sprouts just unfurling their first leaves. In every case it was the row of parked cars that tipped me off, and, behind them, families and individuals, some masked, some simply distanced, tending to their plots. Run by an organization called Outgrowing Hunger, there are 12 of these gardens, all located in East Portland, Oregon, and the neighboring city of Gresham.

In the midst of all the news surrounding COVID-19 and renewed conversations about racism and protests and riots and police brutality, it seems like a story about a few community gardens in a city known for being very liberal and very white might not matter. But these garden plots are more than just a place to grow produce: For the people who farm them, they're a way to connect to their community, a safe and family-friendly place to be outside, and a hub for other necessary services and sharing of information—perhaps now more than ever. "A garden," wrote novelist, environmental activist, and cultural critic Wendell Berry, "is a solution that leads to other solutions."

The first community garden in America was created in Detroit, Michigan, in 1894 after an economic recession left half of the city’s Polish and German immigrants unemployed. The demand for charity soon outstripped what the cash-strapped city was able to provide, as Laura Lawson writes in City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. Mayor Pingree called upon landowners with vacant lots to donate their land to the cause, and raised $3,600 in capital to provide seeds and instructions that were translated into three languages, Lawson writes. At least 975 people participated, producing $14,000 worth of produce at the end of the first year. The city continued to invest more money in "Pingree’s Potato Patches," as they were named, throughout the recession and city-sponsored vacant-lot gardens spread to Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and other cities. After some lulls in the decades since, community gardens have made a comeback in recent years. In the past few months, they’ve turned into lifelines for immigrant communities impacted by COVID-19.

Though Oregon’s Governor issued a stay home order in March, the gardens are, legally, essential because of their role in food production, according to Adam Kohl, executive director of Outgrowing Hunger. They’re essential in other ways, too: A majority of people who sign up for a garden plot with the organization are immigrants or refugees who rely on the garden for fresh food, community, and a way to be outside. There are gardeners from Bhutan and Nepal, Somalia and the Congo, and on and on. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that Outgrowing Hunger’s community gardens are one of the most diverse places in Portland.

Gardeners gathering in and around a lean-to in their community garden in Portland, Oregon.
Gardeners gathering in and around a lean-to in their community garden in Portland, Oregon.

Nabin Dhimal, who is a staff community coordinator for Outgrowing Hunger, was born in a refugee camp in Nepal in 1995. His story is similar to many who fled Bhutan during the 1990s, after the king introduced a "One Nation, One People" edict aimed at forcing the Lhotshampa people, most of them farmers of Nepalese ancestry living in the warm southern end of the country, to leave their language and cultural practices behind or face fines or imprisonment. Restrictions on marriage and citizenship followed, culminating with forced or coerced evictions of over 100,000 people from Bhutan, one-sixth of the total population. Eventually these refugees wound up in camps in Nepal where many remained for decades. Some are still there today.

He was 14 when he and his family came to Oregon. None of them knew English and his parents had never gone to school. "I had to hold my mom’s hand to teach her how to sign," Dhimal remembers. "So many things were new." Even the climate was something to get used to, another type of starting over: Nepal is tropical. People could grow bananas and lychee and guava, and it was so wet that watering was of little concern.

Dhimal’s mother began gardening with another local organization, Grow Portland, who taught her how to grow in the Pacific Northwest’s dry summers. "I can’t speak to the whole community, but my mom says that gardening has been healing whatever trauma she experienced in Bhutan... It’s this way of connecting with nature and the earth and growing food." Even now, in the midst of the pandemic, Dhimal says his mother’s main complaint is that she isn’t spending enough time in the garden.

Durga Dhungel lives in a condo and has always enjoyed gardening. What’s not to love about a hobby that puts food on the table? But now it’s much more than a pastime with benefits. He has two children who are out of school. "They’re not used to being captive in the house," Dhungel says. "The government says to stay home. We don’t want to go to people’s houses, but the garden is somewhere we can go. It gives some relief from these at-home activity things," he says.

"They do not have any space. They’re living in big apartment complexes where you can’t grow anything there," says Dhimal of the vast majority of the Bhutanese people he knows in Portland. People don’t just come to the garden and leave—it’s an all-day affair. Some bring lunch, and picnic. Until recently, it wasn’t uncommon for people to bring more than they needed so they could share food with others they knew at the garden. "It’s not just about how much food you’re growing, it’s about how you’re connecting with the community, and building community," explains Dhimal. Though, many admit, it’s been harder to build community while social distancing.

"We don’t spend as much time [there] as we used to," says Lachuman Bhattarai, of his family’s plot (through his daughter, Ganga, who translated his words into English). "We are worried and wear masks when we go. We don’t socialize now." Ganga contracted COVID-19, but has since recovered. She stayed at her parents’ home through her illness and her sister brought food to her. No one else got sick. "It is much better to live with your parents when you are sick compared to your in-laws," she says with a laugh.

"The pandemic reveals different attitudes towards health and risk," Kohl tells me. He’s noticed the Rwandese wearing masks "all the time, even walking by themselves in a big open space" while the Congolese "maybe just one or two. You talk to them and they’re like ‘we’ve lived through worse than this.’"

Some of the adults wear masks, and everyone who appears to be over 60 has one on. Unconcerned, or perhaps just so happy to be freed from their homes, the children run around with large smiles on their faces while their parents weed and water. In one of the gardens, a gardener built a "treehouse", an elevated hideaway located next to a large tree that hasn’t quite leafed out yet, for his and other children to play in. Though Oregon is known as an outdoor-lover’s state, even before COVID-19, many gardeners’ families rarely went to parks or weekend trips to nearby mountains or rivers. Now, even if they wanted to go somewhere else, the garden has become a de-facto backyard.

Echoing the experiences at Outgrowing Portland, one 2016 study published in the Journal of Community Health found that immigrant and refugee community gardeners valued the exercise, fresh air, and "chemical-free" produce that growing their own food provided. Community gardeners also said that with little space to invite people into their homes, the garden was a place for them to socialize and make new friends. Outgrowing Portland may be one organization behind just a dozen community gardens, but these gardens are far from an outlier. People report these same types of benefits throughout the country. They might have different cultures and histories, but at the garden they find freedom and togetherness, a place to take a breath of clean air.

And though many are more cautious these days about socializing and sharing food, the garden is still an important place for connection and information. Because of Outgrowing Hunger’s relationships with immigrant and refugee communities, they’ve become the middleman for food distribution to families who are experiencing food insecurity. "Four months ago everybody who wanted to work had as many jobs as they wanted," says Kohl. "Now they’re at about 80-percent unemployment. Almost all of the families are working in industries directly impacted [by the pandemic]: hotels, convention centers, restaurants," he lists. "People are able to grow a lot of veggies but might be unfamiliar with the emergency food pantry concepts." Instead, Outgrowing Hunger has occasionally received donations of produce and works with individual gardeners to distribute that food to people who need it most though it’s not a regular part of its mission statement.

Gardeners tending their plot in a community garden run by Outgrowing Hunger in Portland, Oregon.
Gardeners tending their plot in a community garden run by Outgrowing Hunger in Portland, Oregon.

Based on their preferences and food traditions, the gardeners all grow slightly different things. There may be more cilantro in some gardens, small spicy peppers and mustard greens in others, or a garden full of unusual types of beans and squash. Some foods like potatoes, tomato, eggplant, and onion cross all borders.

For the many Bhutanese people who immigrated as adults and speak limited English, the garden is a place where they can use some of the expertise they learned in their home countries—adapted, of course, for the new growing conditions. Many gardeners learn from each other, peering at the methods being used on neighboring plots and adding that knowledge to their repertoires.

Mangali Suba, 33, has kept a plot at the community garden for over seven years. She often calls her family before she heads over to the garden and they visit and work on their plots. Since the shelter-in-place orders, they still might call and meet at the garden but they stay far away. "My sister is doing her own garden. My mom is doing her own garden. I’m doing my own garden," she says. They wear masks and gloves.

Even before the pandemic, Suba was so busy with her children and cooking and cleaning at home that she rarely went out other than to garden. Now, with her three boys at home, she now has even less time. But she tends her garden of eleven different plants, which she uses in cooking things like momo, a type of dumpling, or stews with rice or lentils.

"We didn’t have income in Nepal," Suba says. Often when people left the camp to get work, people would pay them less than promised or not pay at all. "We struggled a lot... Over here we do too, but less." They worked hard in Nepal but could never have hoped to have their own home, as they do now.

Suba’s life is better since coming here but sometimes when it rains, she thinks of Nepal. It’s a happy thought. She feels young again—just a girl with her whole life ahead of her. It used to rain all the time there, much like it does in Oregon, though the rain she grew up with was often accompanied by booming thunderstorms. Those are rare here. Much like growing plants in the community garden, it’s the same as it was back home but it’s a little different, too.