Community Focal Point: Gandhi Garden is about more than just growing food; it’s also a place where people can slow down and be with nature.

By Ron Shapella

Community life in Trenton is germinating anew, but perhaps not where you might expect it. It is taking root, instead, in vacant lots, forgotten spaces among the gravel, cracked bricks, and discarded lumber, the very places that might seem least likely for green shoots to spring forth, much less produce something nourishing amid the hardscrabble.

Urban gardens are in full flower all over the city, and in a place whose the populace is served by a single supermarket — the definition of what has become known as a “food desert.” The gardens are serving as community hubs and as important sources of fresh food. Isles Inc., the Trenton-based urban redevelopment organization, has overseen community gardens since the early 1980s. In 2010 Isles’ gardens attracted the attention of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Public Health Initiatives, which conducted a detailed survey and found that the top five crops grown in Isles’ community gardens — tomatoes, peppers, beans, collard greens, and corn — yielded nearly 90,000 servings and more than 17,100 pounds of food. This bounty came from 29 gardens ranging in size from 100 square feet to a half-acre.

Isles is still the big producer in Trenton, but at least one individual in recent years has parlayed support from the Trenton Downtown Association and grassroots help from friends into an informal network of green places reclaimed from vacant and otherwise unused city lots.

Graham Apgar, 28, an artist and former College of New Jersey student from Hightstown, was a calming force during the recent squabble over ownership rights to the Trenton Pork Roll Festival. During the hubbub, Apgar camped out at the “Gandhi Garden,” a serene spot off of East Hanover Street overseen by the mahatma’s visage, thanks to a muralist and the city’s SAGE Coalition. The Gandhi Garden is dotted with planters made of tires unearthed in the process of creating the garden. Here Apgar held a Vegan Festival, where vegetables were grilled and musicians occupied the stage for an impromptu jam session that has been dutifully posted on Facebook.

“I am interested in food,” says Apgar, the son of a retired state Department of Transportation employee father and a graphic artist and avid gardener mother. “That’s why I am working on that garden. There are a lot of vacant lots where there is good soil. You can grow a lot of food in a small area. To not use that resource makes no sense to me.”

Last year, for example, Apgar grew about 80 tomato plants and harvested “thousands of tomatoes,” he says. Working with ARC Mercer he cooked up “a huge pot of tomato sauce” in the fire pit at the Gandhi Garden. “It was the best tomato sauce I ever had. We had a big pasta party.” He says about 30 people came and he gave away all the food.

The University of Pennsylvania’s study of Isles’ community gardens found a similar theme, where food grown in community gardens is often donated. “Virtually all of the 22 community gardeners we interviewed in person in Trenton share their harvest with neighbors and friends,” says the study. “They have extensive donation networks, most of which are informal, though sometimes gardeners will grow a row expressly for a soup kitchen. When gardeners have a surplus of crops, they sometimes contact Isles garden staff, who may pick up the vegetables and deliver them to a soup kitchen or food bank.”

Donating food from community gardens is not unusual considering the demographics of those doing the gardening. The Penn study found that out of 39 gardeners producing food in Isles’ gardens in 2009, 56 percent reported household incomes below $20,000, and 71 percent below $30,000. One third worked full time, 45 percent were retired or disabled, and the rest worked part time or were seeking work.

In addition, the study found that many people working in the community gardens were immigrants from Jamaica, Liberia, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico, and African Americans who came from the southern United States.

As the world faces a shortage of area suitable for agriculture, not to mention drought afflicting the nation’s prime agriculture area in California, farmers are taking to major cities and are expanding sustainable practices into urban areas.

“City and suburban agriculture takes the form of backyard, rooftop, and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture, and livestock grazing in open space,” the United States Department of Agriculture reported recently. “Urban farming provides a wide variety of potential benefits to people in the area.”

Growing food locally allows people to access the freshest products and their food no longer has to be transported such long distances. This can help to increase taste and nutritional value, the USDA says. When food is locally available, especially from new urban farming sources, consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has been shown to increase, according to a recent report by the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

In addition to personal benefits, urban agriculture offers environmental incentives. According to the web site Urban Farming, farming in cities “allows unused land and wasted resources to be put to use in order to help support local communities. Increased green space can also help reduce soil degradation and keep temperatures lower in hot urban spaces.”

On a recently Saturday afternoon, Apgar — along with a network of friends and volunteers — was turning shipping pallets into planters at a spot Apgar referred to as the Oasis, which is across from City Hall on East State Street. Pete Abrams of Princeton was helping out in a SAGE Coalition T-shirt.

“He’s probably had the biggest influence on how these gardens are being designed,” Apgar says of Abrams, whose now defunct Trenton Atelier urban arts project attracted Apgar to downtown Trenton. “He taught me about how to use local materials and actually clean up the neighborhood and create a garden at the same time.”

They charged the batteries of their electric drills next door, where a crew was renovating a restaurant. The crew also let Apgar fill up a galvanized bucket with water for the seedlings that he was planting in the planters that dotted the Oasis garden.

Derrick McEady is also involved. “He lives in the neighborhood where we have the Gandhi Garden,” Apgar says, “so we hired him to help with the Gandhi Garden. The Trenton Downtown Association hired him to maintain all of Mill Hill Park and all the planters in the downtown area. He does the job of five people. He’s really talented.”

Christian Martin, executive director of the TDA, says Apgar also receives a “small stipend” from the organization for his community garden projects, of which there are at least four in the downtown area. “It’s a labor of love,” Martin says of Apgar’s work. Martin says that TDA can help identify locations suitable for community gardens and help with planning.

Apgar sees these gardens as providing a place for neighborhood children to play, in addition to plots for growing food. In the near future, he says, he will be experimenting with growing different types of food, perhaps installing a fish pond, or even a chicken coop.

“It’s a place to go when you want to just get away from the hustle bustle,” Apgar says. “I wanted to create a spot where people can just slow down and be with nature. It can only be a good thing, I think, because gardens give you a sense of independence. Even if you don’t produce enough to support yourself, you get the idea that the earth will provide food for free. It’s just a matter of changing the stigma around gardening and bringing that culture into the city.

“What I’m really interested in are native plants, native berry trees, permaculture,” he says. “It’s the idea that we can design a place that produces food with practically no maintenance. Trenton is an interesting ecosystem. There’s no guide to this. You have to experiment and see what works. It’s all uncharted territory.

“I want people to understand the therapeutic value of caring for the earth and also just creating space that people can coexist in. There’s so much space in this city that isn’t utilized. We have to find a way to use this space and help people who are here to reinvest in themselves. If I can do that here especially in some of the areas that are the worst for drugs and crime, then I feel that Trenton has a unique future.”

“The whole world will take notice because we didn’t do it the same way.”

You find interesting trees. You have mulberry trees. Someone a long time ago decided to plant mulberry trees and now they’re all over the city.