Community garden faces challenges, opportunities from climate change

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Public urban gardening is about more than fresh local food: the roots of Lansing’s network of community gardens stretch from the farmer’s market to the city council. A conversation with Americorps member Jean Aldrich-Simmons reveals how the South Lansing Urban Gardens program supplements Lansing’s youth, disabled and refugee populations, and just how important this community resource in the wake of climate change.

Warming temperatures could have a chilling effect on Lansing’s many community gardens.

But there’s more at stake than good harvest, environmental experts and community advocates say.

Since 1895, Michigan has seen an average annual temperature increase of 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a greater increase than the global average of 1.4 degrees, according to climate data from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Those increased templates increase the risk of drought, pests and harmful weather events.

For Lansing’s citizen gardeners, who tend nearly 115 community-driven gardens and over 500 home-based gardens, that’s a direct threat to a community resource they hold dear. 

Julie Lehman, garden project manager for the Greater Lansing Community Foodbank, isn’t a climate researcher — “I’m just a community organizer,” she said — but that doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t on her radar.

“Localizing your food system is very important. Michigan is blessed with the Great Lakes and regular rain events, though on average that has changed over the last few years because of climate change,” Lehman said. “A lot of things work for Michigan in terms of growing food, and it’s important that the community feels empowered to grow the food they want to eat.

“But climate change will change that, if we let it.”

Lehman isn’t alone in her concern.

She’s joined by climate researchers Ulo Niinements and Josep Penuelas, authors of the article “Gardening and urban landscaping: significant players in global change” published in February 2008 in the scholarly journal Science Direct

Niinements and Penuelas argue urban gardening is a “major component” of global warming that has been overlooked, and outline the “major global effects of expanded gardening and urban landscaping activities.”

For one, plants suited urban gardens and landscapes are often exotic, ornamental and acclimated to tougher urban environments, the researchers said. This creates a source of alien plants that could escape cultivation and become invasive weeds.

These garden escapees can hybridize with other invasive plants or local species, making them tougher to eliminate more likely to outperform or eliminate native species. 

“Recent studies demonstrate that several components of global change, such as enhanced nitrogen depositions and elevated (carbon dioxide) concentration, can favor the competitive ability of alien species,” the article says. “These drivers have enormously enhanced species invasions globally.”

More than just a garden

That doesn’t dent the optimism of Jean Aldrich-Simmons, Americorps member and the director for the South Lansing Urban Garden project, an affiliate of the Greater Lansing Food Bank Garden Project.

She argues that it’s not just what you’re growing – it’s also why.

Working alongside South Lansing Urban Gardens, Aldrich-Simmons tends to a hoop house, a 90-foot enclosure designed to lengthen the growing season and allow for the cultivation of crops during the cold months.

Many of these crops aren’t native to Lansing, or anywhere in Michigan, but they’re still essential to the local food supply and local culture.

Lansing’s refugee population has a strong presence in the garden project, Aldrich-Simmons said, and they work long, hard days with the project to provide food for their families. Many come from countries with already hot climates, like Vietnam — which hit a record 110 degrees last April — and Syria, according to data from the Refugee Development Center.

“They’re some of my best friends,” Aldrich-Simmons said of the refugee volunteers. “The reality is that, with the exception of a Horrock’s here or there — or a Trader Whatever, I don’t know — a lot of their crops are unavailable” at local grocery stores.

Places like Vietnam and Syria face an even more dangerous foe in climate change, studies show. As rising temperatures cause drought and food shortages across the globe, mass migrations of people, called climate refugees, are expected to become more commonplace.

Public gardening can provide a gateway to the greater community for these migrants, Aldrich-Simmons said, and growing and tending their own crops provides a source of food and personal empowerment.

Refugees aren’t the only vulnerable group to benefit from urban gardening. The roots of Lansing’s community garden network extend deep in the community.

In addition to coordinating the South Lansing Urban Garden project, Aldrich-Simmons said she participates in a home-grown potluck events, teaches gardening workshops within the Ingham County women’s prison system and hosts a cooking class for autistic adults – a program that goes hand in hand with the project’s initiative to localize food.

There’s a community garden across the street from the class, Aldrich-Simmons said. And while it hasn’t generated garden-fresh produce yet (“Someday,” Aldrich-Simmons said), the cooking class provides instruction on kitchen basics like using the stove and holding a knife.

The fate of Lansing’s gardening network

Norm K. Lownds, director of Michigan State University’s Children’s Gardens, says the fate of Lansing’s community garden network — as well as the greater fate of the planet — is in the hands of those who will face its most dire consequences: kids.

It’s up to us today to plant the seeds of hope for tomorrow, Lownds said. That starts with kids and with an early, hands-on education on the importance of plants in the ecosystem and in their communities.

“Our motto is experience plants,” Lownds said of Michigan State’s 4-H Children’s Gardens program. “Every kid should grow a plant, touch them, smell them. That will change the way that they look at plants for the rest of their lives, and that’s what our philosophy is rooted in.”

Lownds recognizes the importance of teaching children the implications of climate change far and wide. The loss of delicate ecosystems, like the rain forests of South America, and the potential submerging of coastal and island habitats are among the most serious consequences of climate change.

But still, Lownds said, for kids, the most powerful connections are forged “at a local level.”

“I think that they need to be connected, to have a physical connection to the plants and the environment around them,” Lownds said.

“I absolutely believe it’s important that kids get to learn about the rainforest and the ocean, and about the loss of those ecosystems. But it’s just beyond the scope of what they can wrap their heads around. But if I can take them to the Children’s Gardens, to this pond, and say this is what happens to this pond, these plants and these frogs?

“They need something they can wrap their minds around, even something they can almost wrap their arms around.”

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