Since 1987, Extension Educator Mohamed Dhinbil has been helping inner city residents create urban gardens. In a collaboration with the city of Bridgeport, Dhinbil oversees some sixteen gardens each year.
The project began in 1982, when Bridgeport officials were looking for a way to transform the numerous vacant lots that plagued the city. These vacant lots serve as a magnet for drug dealers and other illegal activities. In addition, the abandoned areas collect garbage and attract rodents.
Sabine Kuczo, neighborhood coordinator in Bridgeport’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, is enthusiastic about the program. She says, “The City of Bridgeport has worked closely with UConn Extension System for many years. It is a wonderful partnership to carry out the Community Garden Program in Bridgeport's neighborhoods. A transformation takes place on that particular block where a community garden is established. The neighbors are turning a vacant lot, usually a blighted lot that has been an eyesore to them, into a beautiful garden with vegetables and flowers. It instantly changes the fabric of that block. Not only does the program provide food for the residents, but also combats a quality of life issue.”
She continues, “There are about 22 community gardens throughout the city's neighborhoods and each year we try to add one or two more.The program is free to the residents, they receive tools, soil, plants, and help with cleaning up the sites. It is wonderful to see the gardeners working together and making a positive impact in their neighborhood.”
Each lot averages 7,000 square feet and is divided into individual plots and larger plots assigned to schools and other organizations. The individual plots average 12 feet by 12 feet in size, and each individual or family cares for one or more plots, depending on their ability to manage the gardens.
Dhinbil begins each new project by sending out flyers and meeting with neighbors to assess the needs and interests of the neighborhood. Then a vacant lot is chosen, and work begins. The city allots $16,000 for the program to pay for development, fencing, and garden essentials.
Equipment for site cleanup and development is provided by the City of Bridgeport. Heavy equipment is brought in to move large brush and garbage. Volunteers help with rubbish removal. Sometimes, inmates preparing for community release assist with site cleanup.
The soil is tested for heavy metals such as mercury, and topsoil is brought to the site. A six-foot fence is installed with a locked gate. Guidelines are established for work hours, and a coordinator is assigned for each site. If funds are available, water is brought to the site, otherwise the fire department periodically fills water storage containers. Sometimes a local church or business will help the gardeners by providing on-site water. In other cases, a neighbor’s water is used with each gardener pitching in to pay the water bill.
The gardens are planted in raised beds. Dhinbil works with the gardeners to design the entire lot site, as well as individual gardens. Some lots are laid out with an area for those interested in organic gardening, set apart from the traditionally managed gardens. Dhinbil brings in the plants and provides on-site training in demonstration plots so residents learn about plant varieties, spacing, and maintenance. He continues training throughout the growing season. Volunteers from around the city and from organizations such as the Master Gardener Program assist new gardeners.
At times, Dhinbil must overcome cultural and language barriers while trying to teach horticulture to residents. For instance, when describing weed control, some of the participants associate the word “weed” with marijuana. Residents might ask for garden powder, meaning pesticides, not knowing exactly what the garden does or does not need. Dhinbil teaches proper maintenance of gardens, including application of any pesticides needed.
Most of the gardens are filled with vegetable crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, cucumbers, and various leafy greens. Gardeners usually harvest enough vegetables for their family and neighbors and to provide donations to area shelter kitchens.
Dhinbil says the experience has broadened his horticultural knowledge and honed his communication skills. He enjoys testing plant varieties and discovering practical gardening techniques that succeed for gardeners with varied gardening skills. “I’ve worked with a diverse range of people, dealing with problems and finding solutions,” he notes.
“The gardeners are very successful,” Dhinbil remarks. “In the beginning there are always a few problems, but the skill of the gardeners improves over time.”
• “ It means a lot, and gives children a chance to learn gardening.”
• “ Brings people together, beautiful to look at.”
•”It means peace, a chance to work with your hands, meet neighbors we didn’t know, help with the grocery bills.”
• “It is a source of food and has joined our neighbors closer together.”
• “Beauty and vegetables.”
• “We feel better when we spend our time in our gardens.”
--Comments of participants in the Community Garden Program