Sharing the Harvest: Montana’s Community Gardens

for Montana 55

Gardens are a natural gathering place, so it’s no surprise community gardens are gaining popularity
throughout Montana. From group efforts where friends share a garden to individual plots, these neighborhood growing spaces give everyone a chance to raise their own healthy food. And though the ground may be hard now, it’s never too early to think about where to garden in the spring and summer.

There is nothing new about the community garden concept. Earlier versions were known as victory gardens during World War II. Community gardens experienced a resurgence within the past 20 years, as more people became conscientious of the benefits of locally-grown food. There are now gardening opportunities in every large town in Montana, as well as many of the smaller ones.

Susie Watson, who manages the Electric City Conservatory community garden with River City Harvest in Great Falls with her husband, Doc, said at least half of their gardeners are over 60 years old. Community gardens are ideal for those who are downsizing. At that stage in life, some may no longer need an entire bushel of tomatoes each fall. A community garden plot allows people to grow more than they can in containers while also enjoying the camaraderie of the garden. And it’s convenient for those who travel since garden neighbors often share watering and care duties.

Most importantly, it’s place for all ages and skill levels.

“We have some first time gardeners and we mentor them,” Watson said of the Electric City Conservatory. “The younger people look up to the seniors for advice.” She said new gardeners often ask questions or run gardening plans by more experienced gardeners to work out the basics before planting.

Watson also appreciates having younger gardeners nearby since they are more than willing to lend a hand whenever needed. She said it’s helpful to have additional muscles on garden projects.

And beyond fresh vegetables, Watson appreciates how tending gardens keeps her moving and allows her to spend time outdoors.“We go out every day,” she said. “It’s a good activity. It gets you up and gets you out.”

The community garden is also an important part of the Watsons’ social life. She said they are at the garden practically every day, and often visit with other gardeners. They often share more than what is happening in the soil, like what is new in their daily lives. Time in the garden can truly cultivate meaningful friendships.

“I try to do a gathering with all of the gardeners at the beginning of the season,” Watson said.

It’s an opportunity to swap seeds, discuss gardening plans and catch up with fellow gardeners. They wrap up the season with a barbecue in the garden where everyone brings a garden-inspired side dish.

Ultimately, it’s place to share. Watson said besides supplying the needs of individuals and families who rent garden plots, excess produce is donated to Meals on Wheels and other local, charitable organizations further benefiting the entire community.

Community gardens are where food and fellowship wrap into a practical and meaningful experience, regardless of age or experience level. M55