Gardens that create and heal communities

Community gardens don’t just bring neighborhoods together, they heal the sick, help feed the hungry, and nurture the weary soul.

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Overland Park, Kansas, is not known as a place of magic—or mystery. But for a short time, this sprawling suburb—home to corporate offices, malls, and leafy subdivisions—became home to gnomes. A gnome village sprouted out of nowhere, it seemed, along a trail through a neighborhood forest called Tomohawk Creek Trail.

Though at first, no one knew who created the village or why, the delight was widespread. (Well, maybe not in the perplexed Overland Park parks department!)

Tiny colorful doors hinged on trees, tiny furniture, tiny signs—literally, of gnome life—brought joy and wonder to many of the community’s hurting population. And this place, called Firefly Forest, became another example of the way community gardens and outdoor spaces are healing people.

Overland Park’s short-lived Firefly Forest (the city wanted it down and its creators moved) joined the ranks of community gardens that have sprung up—through the hard work of volunteers and organizations—and breathed new life into weary urban communities in places like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit.

Detroit’s are among the most celebrated, yes, Detroit—a city that has taken bigger economic hits than nearly any other American city with crumbling buildings and vacant lots—has more than 1,000 urban gardens. Lovingly tended, their flowers and plants bring hope, reminding all who who live in Detroit and visit it that a community’s “death” may not be all it seems and that resurrection is possible. Beyond hope these urban gardens bring something equally nourishing—the food they yield. They grow plants that sustain people who are often lacking fresh fruits and vegetables in an urban food desert.

Churches, of course, especially those in poor areas across the United States, are some of the biggest facilitators of these types of gardens. Holy Cross Community Church in Durham, N.C., uses their garden to grow food for needy folks in their community. St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Juniper, Florida, offers a tranquil meditation and memorial garden. Countless other examples exist of churches whose volunteers give hours upon hours to create spaces that nourish weary spirits and feed hungry stomachs.

Anyone who has experienced the emotional, physical, or spiritual healing power of working in or visiting (or eating from) a community garden or natural space doesn’t need science to back up what they know to be true. But a recent study does it anyway: according to England’s National Health Service, gardening—particularly community gardening—should be prescribed for “patients with cancer, dementia and mental health problems.”

The reasons? According to the King’s Fund health think tank, “Outdoor spaces including gardens can reduce social isolation among older people as well as help patients recover and manage conditions such as dementia.”

And of course, social isolation isn’t only a problem among older people. It spans all ages and all communities.

Alex, of the Firefly Forest blog, who photographed and wrote extensively about the mysteries of Overland Park’s Firefly Forest, says in The Gnomist, “Living in suburbia can be extremely isolating. But all of a sudden when there’s little additions in the forest that make people curious, then you have a real community.”

While certainly feeding the hungry is a huge, important goal of many community gardens, connecting human beings and creating community—even in “silly” ways like a gnome village—is equally important and valued, as they do so much good for the many, many people who are alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, community gardens also offer “physical and mental health benefits by providing opportunities to engage in physical activity, skill building … [and] decrease violence in some neighborhoods, and improve social well-being through strengthening social connections.”

Other research supports the health benefits of gardening for individuals, especially those suffering with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD; depression; and anxiety. Scientists aren’t exactly sure of the exact reason why, but they do know that, “gardening reduces stress and calms the nerves. It decreases cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in stress response.” So some doctors even suggest it to their patients as a form of at-home therapy.

Community gardens are good for one and all: the old, the sick, or just the sad or weary. Which brings us back to Firefly Forest. As it turns out, the gnome village was created by a mom named Robyn, and her sons, who were dealing with the loneliness of frequent moves and the pain of a recent divorce. Robyn created the garden for her boys—but its magical appearance ended up helping others in the process, including grieving parents who had lost their young daughter.

After they removed the gnome village before another one of their moves, Robyn and her boys left notes in the village’s place:

“You can change the world.”

“Create your own magic.”

“What do you believe?”

Perhaps those messages are the takeaway for anyone who runs or visits a community garden—and can serve as inspiration for those who may want to get involved in an existing one or create their own. Whether it’s to grow fresh, healthy food or create a place to heal hungry souls, the power of public green spaces to nurture a community is a magical one. These gardens, whether for food or for beauty, are a labor of love by those who build them, and a blessing to the rest of us who find comfort and healing in them.

Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira

Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of five books and is a columnist for Her.meneutics and ThinkChristian. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, three kids, and one red-nose pit bull. Visit her at

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