Winter 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Gardening's Socioeconomic Impacts

Extension has led the way to help the farming community produce food for the nation. The same sort of leadership could make city vacant lots produce fresh nutritious food for low-income families and individuals close to home. The future holds a tremendous potential for community gardening and Extension's involvement.

Ishwarbhai C. Patel
County Agricultural Agent
Urban Gardening
Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Newark, New Jersey

Community gardening is an educational process for changing the minds and actions of people so they can "help themselves" attain economic and social well-being.

A 1982 Gallup Poll1 revealed that more than three million Americans garden at community sites; an additional seven million would garden if land were available and 76% of those polled would like community gardens to be a permanent part of their communities.

Community gardens are neighborhood open spaces managed by and for the members of the community. Most typically, the community garden is divided into individual plots and planted with vegetables by landless gardeners. Some families even share plots.

Gardening relates to several of the Cooperative Extension System National Initiatives, especially Improving Nutrition, Diet, and Health. This article describes Extension's role in improving the life quality and socioeconomic well-being of individuals, families, and neighborhoods through community gardening in an urban environment.

The data came from interviews with 178 gardeners residing in Newark, New Jersey and surrounding communities and records maintained in Rutgers Urban Gardening office.


Demographic Characteristics

Almost two-thirds (65%) of the respondents were women; nearly 75% were black, 5% were white, and 19% Hispanic. More than half of the gardeners were middle-aged (56%) and 43% were senior citizens. Gardening was a hobby for after-job hours or on weekends for more than one-third (37%). Gardening cut across social, economic, and racial barriers and brought together people of all ages and backgrounds.

Socioeconomic Benefits

Table 1 shows the benefits listed by the gardeners. The majority of benefits reflect the value of horticulture to human well-being. More than two-fifths of the participants benefited by getting fresh vegetables, 35% felt the fresh vegetables they harvested improved their diets, and about one-fourth derived personal satisfaction through gardening.

Table 1. Socioeconomic benefits of gardening.
Benefit Percent
Life quality
   Fresh food/vegetables 44.4%
   Improved diet 35.2
   Personal satisfaction and enjoyment 26.0
Economic well-being
   Saved money 33.5
Social well-being
   Socializing 31.3
   Helping others 29.0
   Sharing the produce with others 14.5
   Feeling of self-sufficiency 13.8
   Improved neighborhood 13.0

Economic Well-Being. An important economic incentive or fringe benefit for one-third of the gardeners was money saved. In 1989, there were 905 community gardens in Newark covering an area of about 15 acres growing 45 varieties of vegetables worth over $450,000. The average size of a community garden was 720 square feet. The USDA has developed the formula listed below for converting garden area into dollar value of production.

For Newark vegetable gardens, the distance between rows (crop intensity) was considered 1' to less than 2', the crop quality good, and frost-free days less than 200. Accordingly, the dollar value of production per garden was: 720 x 1.0 x 0.7 x 1.0 = $504.

The average input cost per garden was about $25, making the average garden savings $475. The percentage return on direct- dollar involvement is definitely enviable, especially since this $475 saving is tax-free. Greater yields and dollar savings can be coaxed from the garden depending on the size of the plot, length of the growing season, and techniques used. Typical comments were: "I have hardly bought any vegetables since gardening." "I garden mainly to save money and provide vegetables to meet our family's needs year-round." "I plant varieties that I can't get at local markets or ones that are too costly." "My harvest is fresh and doesn't cost me anything."

Social Well-Being. Table 1 strongly indicates that the gardens became places for social interaction and community building. Slightly less than one-third of the participants developed new friendships through the gardens. Gardening promotes a community atmosphere and gives people an opportunity to meet others, share concerns, and solve a few problems together. Almost a third helped others and 14% shared their produce. Many gardeners expressed feelings like: "Most of our gardeners enjoy the social experience. Lots of them might never meet if it weren't for the garden." "We have developed new friendships through gardening. We didn't know many people in our neighborhood until we started telling one another about how tasty our vegetables were."

About 13% of the participants said the gardening activity improved the neighborhood. Typical comments included: "It's better to have a garden instead of having a garbage-filled lot." "Even people just passing felt like stopping and talking to gardeners." "Over the garden, we knew who our neighbors are." What stands out in this array of responses is that through gardening, participants felt good about themselves and their ability to cope with the world around them. It served as a neighborhood-building activity. Behavior as a social group was modified by the presence of plants and participation in gardening activities. Gardening served as a way to break down some of the social barriers existing between neighbors.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of community gardening is providing a piece of land for people to call their own for a season at least. It's estimated that more than 20% of U.S. land is held by corporations, much of it around cities and suburbs where the need for gardening space is acute.2 For landless Americans, community gardening can be the first step toward self- sufficiency-providing land to garden, a place to call "mine," and the opportunity to grow and produce things of value.

Implications for Extension

The findings indicate it's worthwhile for Extension to promote community gardening. At present, Urban Gardening is a 23- city program. Extension could expand it to other communities where vacant lots may be available and provide research-based information to gardeners. Many at-risk youth could benefit from the sense of pride and self-worth that develops from community gardening if more emphasis would be placed on involving them and focusing on their specialized needs. Greater participation from the home economists has the potential for improving the diet and health of program participants.

Extension has led the way to help the farming community produce food for the nation. The same sort of leadership could make city vacant lots produce fresh nutritious food for low- income families and individuals close to home. The future holds a tremendous potential for community gardening and Extension's involvement.


1. Larry Sommers, Theory G-The Employee Gardening Book (Burlington, Vermont: The National Association for Gardening, 1984).

2. Ibid.

Dollar value
of production =  Area   x    Crop      x      Crop     x    Length of season
                 (sq. ft)    intensity        quality       (frost-free days)
                             between rows)    Good = 0.7    200 or more = 1.2
                                              Fair = 0.4    Less than 200 = 1.0
     Less than 1' = 1.2
     1' to less than 2' = 1.0
     2' to less than 3' = 0.8
     3' or more = 0.7