The joy of biting into a juicy, homegrown tomato is running down Madelyn Keib's chin.
Vegetables don't get any fresher than something picked just seconds before. At 3, Madelyn already has that figured out.
On this sunny morning at one of metro Atlanta's newest community gardens, a gaggle of other preschoolers and toddlers are reaching for red, ripe tomatoes and finding bliss by the bite as their mothers harvest a few for later.
The quest for fresh steers thousands of Atlantans to community gardens each year. From a mid-rise Buckhead apartment complex and vacant urban lots to a suburban park, the 150 independent gardens offer a sunlit patch of ground, a chance to socialize and the know-how and hands-on help to grow your own produce.
Many of the region's oldest gardens serve urban seniors with limited access to grocery stores, providing healthy, inexpensive food and recreation.
As the city of Atlanta's population booms and green space dwindles in the suburbs, though, a new crop of gardeners is stepping forward. From Reynoldstown to Mableton, community plots are springing up to feed a renewed hunger for locally grown produce.
A new agreement that opens up limited areas of city of Atlanta parks for community organic gardens likely will bring even more. Extra space meets a growing need, says George Dusenbury, executive director of Park Pride, a nonprofit parks advocacy group which will manage gardens in Atlanta parks.
"You're going to see more demand for these community gardens," Dusenbury says. "It's for people like me who don't necessarily want a yard, but want to dig in the dirt and grow stuff."
Kate Keib has a yard, but that didn't stop her from organizing the Mableton Community Garden this spring with her friend, Jane Gower Turner. They soon bonded with other like-minded gardeners with shady yards and a yen for knowing where their food comes from.
"We eat more fresh vegetables than we did before," Turner says. "I used to buy a lot more bagged, organic cut vegetables."
Among 21 plots in Cobb County's Nickajack Park, in a swath of open land under power lines, children run about while adults garden and form friendships in a rapidly developing community. Members share watering responsibilities, trade extra produce and keep an eye on what everyone else is growing: sunflowers and okra, cayenne peppers and melons.
"Everyone just wants to really commit to our community and commit to healthy eating," Keib says.
At the Clarkston Community Center, a mix of long-time residents and Somalian and Bosnian refugees tend plots. At group dinners and while weeding and planting, members get a taste of other cultures.
The Somali men have one garden, and the women tend another, says Sherrill Terry, founder of the Clarkston Community Garden. A Bosnian family grows a variety of cabbage they can't find in grocery stores locally, to turn into sauerkraut they'll eat all winter. Members trade recipes at potlucks and jointly tend a donation plot, for produce they will give to groups in need.
Like many gardens in metro Atlanta, both Mableton and Clarkston get help from Fred Conrad, who coordinates community gardens for the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Conrad provides advice and tools, like tillers to prepare the ground for planting. For plots where most of the gardeners are elderly women, he also organizes muscle power.
The food bank has worked with some gardens for more than a decade, nurturing seniors and relocating gardens as neighborhoods change. About half of the gardens that Conrad works with donate food for needy people in their community, in addition to boosting their members' diets.
"People that garden eat better," Conrad says. "They tend to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables."
Post Properties, an Atlanta-based apartment development company known for its lush landscaping, has installed vegetable gardens for residents at 10 of its Georgia complexes since 1988. Most are in suburban developments, although the most recent is in a five-story mid-rise building in Buckhead by Phipps Plaza.
There's usually a waiting list for plots. Properties with the highest demand hold annual lotteries, says Todd Tibbitts, senior vice president for property services. Post provides organic compost, seeds, tools and advice from landscape crews to give gardeners a boost.
And, at the end, there's the biggest boost of all: a ripe tomato, a crisp cucumber, a sense of community.
By ELIZABETH LEE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/23/07