Gardening: tending to vegetables, tending to communities

by Kevin Boehnke

Since May 2010, I have been an avid (if amateur) gardener. After buying our house in 2009, one of the first plans my wife and I made  was to tear up portions of our lawn in order to plant a large vegetable garden. Part of our  rationale behind this decision was environmental, but we also thought that it was important to figure out where our food comes from, how much effort it takes to grow food, and to see if it was possible to meet our produce needs using our little patch of land (our garden currently occupies 750 square feet). We thought that this decision was practical: vegetables are quite pricey (especially if you buy heirloom or organic varieties), sometimes costing up to $5-6 per pound. As a bonus, it was also a chance to work on our own project with friends, and to challenge ourselves to attempt one of the most important and venerable humans tasks from the ground up: feeding ourselves.

Gardening led to some immediate benefits: spending so much time being active outside helped us get in shape and get to know our neighbors, we learned oodles about soil quality and plants, and we got to eat a huge yield of delicious vegetables. After having such a great experience with our little plot, I wondered if gardening actually had other measurable costs and benefits. After looking into it, here is what I found:

Economics File:Victory-garden.jpgThere are many known benefits of gardening (including stress release and hospital therapy) but the economic value of tending a home vegetable garden is difficult to quantify as there is little literature available on the direct costs and benefits of gardening. However, it appears that maintaining a garden may have financial benefits, considering that in difficult financial times, Americans have historically started growing vegetables to defray the costs of food. To be fair, this may also be because people who are unemployed want do anything they can to help feed their families, and gardening is a cheap and effective way to do so. After the Panic of 1893, Detroit’s mayor, Hazen S. Pingree, encouraged Detroit residents to plant gardens in vacant lots. As tough times have hit Detroit again in recent years, urban gardening again is on the rise. During World War II, the administration encouraged citizens to grow their own vegetables, with the iconic Victory Gardens providing up to 40% of the nations’ produce in 1944. For our garden, we’ve spent about 700 person hours and $1500 on garden inputs (soil amendments, wood for raised beds, compost, seeds, tomato cages, trellises, etc…) since its inception. In that time, we’ve grown an estimated 2500 lbs of food. Considering that many of the expenses are one time costs and that we spent a fair amount of the money on unnecessary purchases, this garden has produced fairly cheap food.

Community Cohesiveness

This is what we’re eating!

One way that gardening benefits have been  quantified is through the study of neighborhood attachment, an emotional connection to one’s physical environment. A paper investigating the effects of different activities on neighborhood attachment found that gardening, length of residency, and social efficacy (“the link between mutual trust and a shared willingness to intervene for the common good of the neighborhood”) are all strongly correlated with neighborhood attachment. According to the study, gardening (at home, in community gardens, or in other people’s gardens) increases interaction between neighbors, helps build a shared feeling of community pride, and is not an exclusive activity, meaning that everyone in a neighborhood (regardless of whether they own their property) can get involved together in a communal activity.  This has been true in my experience as well; several neighbors walk by my house every day, asking how “their garden” is doing and wanting to know what we’ve planted, how we’re planning on expanding the garden, and what we’re currently eating.

Public Health Benefits

There is an abundance of research indicating that eating plants is good for you. Increasing your consumption of vegetables and fruits is correlated with positive health outcomes, and apparently tending a vegetable garden helps gardeners eat more veggies. In a study out of Oregon State, researchers implemented a public health intervention aimed at increasing food security in underprivileged populations. The researchers got funding to provide the basic materials for vegetable gardens and educated migrant workers about how to garden. After the intervention, worries about running out of food dropped from 31% to 3%. With regards to eating habits, 84% of adults and and 60% children ate vegetables several times a day post-intervention compared to 18.2% of adults and 24% of children pre-intervention, respectively. However, the frequency of skipping meals was not significantly different before and after the intervention. Of course this study has limits; it is not feasible to provide everyone with gardening supplies and education for free, but it suggests that gardening may indeed lead to healthier behavior.


Make no mistake: it can be difficult to maintain a high yielding vegetable garden. Not only must you contend with pests, poor soil quality or contamination, and lack of time or knowledge about gardening, but you also need to contend with societal standards. Most communities in our country have laws that codify certain types of behavior and aesthetic standards. These are often enforced by laws that demand that residents follow certain guidelines for their property. For instance, we have had the community standards police called on us several times due to the height of certain plants in my yard, and recently had to pay a fine because of our 10 foot tall Jerusalem artichokes.

Final thoughts

As I scoured the interwebs looking for scientific data on gardening, I came across news articles about urban gardens and the ways that different communities are incorporating food production into their daily lives. For instance, in Colorado there are new housing developments that have acres of farm built into them for families to grow their own food and keep livestock. After my experiences, I was pleased to find that not only were urban gardens causing a large social shift, but they were doing so with strong scientific backing.

As for me, as more of my friends work together to create a cooperative gardening effort, we cook together more often with our abundant vegetables, we scheme about what fruits and vegetables to grow in the following years, and plot to improve our yields through crop rotation, companion planting, and amending the soil. In short, through a shared experience and shared interests, we build stronger ties to each other as we build a community together.

Adapted from Mind the Science Gap 


  • Carney, Patricia A., et al. “Impact of a Community gardening project on vegetable intake, food security and family relationships: a community-based participatory research study.” Journal of community health 37.4 (2012): 874-881. DOI
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  • Carney, Patricia A., et al. “Impact of a Community gardening project on vegetable intake, food security and family relationships: a community-based participatory research study.” Journal of community health 37.4 (2012): 874-881. DOI
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