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story.lead_photo.caption The Avilla Zion Community Garden in Saline County has 60 raised beds that are used by 39 families and 139 students at Avilla Christian Academy. Food from the garden is also collected for the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, located across the street.

There’s something about gardening that helps people foster a connection with plants and the environment. When you turn gardening into community efforts, it not only creates this connection, but also brings people together and helps those involved develop an appreciation for fresh food and wellness.

There are a couple of areas in Arkansas — Avilla and the Dark Hollow neighborhood of North Little Rock — that have recognized the importance of community gardening, and many have benefited from the fruits of their labor.

Avilla Zion Community Garden

The urban-style Avilla-Zion Community Garden in rural Avilla of Saline County shows what a little hard work can do.

With the work of dozens of people in a few short months, the garden, in a large space across from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, is big enough to feed more than 39 families, along with supplying the church’s food pantry.

“I’ve looked at [community gardens] for about four years and was either going to do one here or one somewhere else in the community,” said Bruce Schrader, community garden director and avid gardener.

With the help of 10 people, including Schrader, a proposed community garden on the large parcel of land across from the church was voted on in December. The garden would rely on volunteers in the church and community, and plots would be rented out to families.

And the rest is history.

Today, with the help of donations and thousands of hours of volunteer work put in by 92 volunteers, 39 families have raised beds with plants that they maintain, and 10 beds are designated for Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as 10 for the 139 students at Avilla Christian Academy, located next to the church.

“What they grow, they pick,” Schrader said.

Everything from vibrant patches of lettuce, spinach and broccoli to English peas, corn and tomatoes can be seen thriving. And it’s all done with square-foot gardening — a simple system that the director has favored. It’s a simple system that adapts to many levels of experience and geographical locations, allowing people to grow much more in a smaller space than a conventional row garden.

Most days, people of all walks of life from the community and church can be seen hard at work maintaining their beds, watering flowers that sit at the base of trees on the lot and sharing a laugh or two.

“We’ve done outreaches before and with the school — we have — but this is a different outreach,” Schrader said. “It’s the sense of building community.”

Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church pastor Mike Schleider agreed. He has a plot in the garden where he’s growing tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, eggplant, onions, radishes and carrots. And while he has a garden at home, he enjoys maintaining his bed at Avilla.

“It’s a little more enjoyable weeding next to somebody,” he said. “It’s neat to have the community aspect. It makes it that much more enjoyable.”

Dark Hollow Community Garden

Just 40 miles northeast of Avilla is the Dark Hollow Community Garden in North Little Rock.

With two plots on a corner lot in the neighborhood that have a variety of veggies planted and a constant stream of community residents working together, you could say the urban garden is somewhat of a success.

Janice Martin, the community garden committee chairwoman, said the Dark Hollow Community Development Corp. wanted an attraction that would bring people together.

“There were discussions about what we could do to get the community involved, and different things the CDC could do to get the general community involved,” she said. “I had seen the Dunbar Community Garden, and I suggested that we do a community garden.”

Many agreed that it was a great project for the community.

With the help of those at the cooperative extension service and a grant from North Little Rock’s Fit 2 Live Program — a city initiative that addresses the obesity epidemic and helps make healthy choices easy for residents — the garden was able to get off the ground last year.

Beth White, an alderman for the city of North Little Rock, said the program is instrumental in the health and overall success of a town.

“It creates safer communities [and] makes them more desirable to move to,” she said.

The grant from the Fit 2 Live Community Garden Grant Program that was given to the garden last year is part of an effort to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables across the city. The it has been used to build and maintain the community garden in the Dark Hollow community.

These days, several residents have helped plant vegetables just in time for spring. Belinda Burney, president of the Dark Hollow CDC, said the group hopes to bring back all of the vegetables that were planted last year — broccoli, collard greens, lettuce, radishes, garlic and cabbage — and to have some tomatoes. Produce is up for the taking for those in the community.

“We leave it open so people can come in,” Burney said.

Dark Hollow businesses, churches and residents of the community have joined forces to maintain their community garden.

Take, for instance, the church deacon who mows the corner lot where the garden is located, or the business on the opposite corner, whose owner helps supply the water for the fresh produce. Others have also contributed their time and energy.

“It has brought the businesses to know the community,” Burney said. “We’ve actually gotten to know people at the businesses, and they help, also.”

It’s a learning experience for all those involved, particularly for neighborhood children.

“I think we give our kids a chance to see something grow,” Martin said. “We take the kids to the grocery store every day — we buy canned goods, we buy produce, and they already see it there for them to pick. When you have a small community garden, they can go out and touch it and see it. They can really see how it grows and appreciate it.”

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