Israel's community gardens bloom

In Tel Aviv and across Israel, residents join communities that cultivate community vegetable gardens, enjoying the once lost sense of sharing between neighbors while developing a more sustainable approach to life.

al-monitor An overhead view of the Florentin community garden in Tel Aviv, April 2015. Photo by FACEBOOK/הגינה הקהילתית בפלורנטין.

Topics covered

vegetables, tel aviv, fruits, food security, food, farmers, education, community

Jul 28, 2015

The community garden in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin is a genuine marvel: At the heart of a densely populated, gray urban environment, dominated by bare concrete and amid construction work in full swing, a small farm is hidden. Locals are growing herbs, fruit trees, potatoes, cucumbers, chili peppers, tomatoes, corn and even sunflowers.

On a visit to the community garden on a recent Saturday, the day of the week usually dedicated to gardening work, Hila Harel, who runs the activities at the garden, took out two pita breads filled with produce from the garden that she had collected the day before. She walked over to the cucumber patch, picked two cucumbers and sat down to eat. "Instead of going to the grocery store to buy vegetables, you can just walk through the garden and look for whatever has ripened. It's really cool!" she told Al-Monitor.

For Harel and for virtually all those involved in community gardening, the gardens are just an excuse. What really matters is the community. "It is so nice to go back home with a bag of tomatoes, but the main thing is the sense of community," Harel said. "The cultivation work in community gardens across the city and throughout the country brings people together. There is something appealing about getting together with neighbors; it's nice to see the community spirit at work and to witness the interest and activity inspired by the garden."

The hard-core group cultivating the Florentin community garden numbers only five loyal members, in addition to roughly 15 casual members who are actively involved in the project. However, the garden attracts many visitors. Thus, for instance, a man who was experiencing financial hardship came to the garden to get vegetables and now comes on and off to work in the garden in return. "We asked ourselves whether the garden should be open to nonmembers," Harel said. "We then decided that it should be open to all. Naturally, we welcome anyone willing to share in the work — not just those who reap the fruits of the labor of others."

The community garden in Florentin — established in 2005 and the first such initiative in Tel Aviv — is run like hundreds of other community gardens across Israel. The focus is on growing vegetables, fruits and herbs. It is an organic and ecological garden that is managed by a tight-knit community. The growing interest in community vegetable gardens and in growing food for self-consumption can be attributed to a range of factors, such as the ever-growing ecological and organic trend in Israel and the economic crisis. However, the main reason for the success of the garden is that it addresses a basic human need — a desire to feel part of a community and establish a close relationship with neighbors.

"Most of the Jewish holidays have an agricultural aspect. So during the harvest festival of Shavuot [Feast of Weeks], we hold an open feast, inviting all to join us. Similarly, we celebrate the holidays of Tu BiShvat [New Year of the Trees], Purim and Hanukkah, when we hold special community activities," Harel said. "We are also working with patients at a nearby mental health center, and we benefit from this too. I, for one, have learned that there is nothing to be afraid of. I found out that there are people there with whom we can work. The relationship with the community is the most significant thing."

The Tel Aviv municipality supports about 27 community gardens across the city. It requires, among other things, that the gardens are built on allocated plots in areas that are not designed for construction, that they open their gates to the public, and that no insecticides or other harmful substances are used.

"We seek to create neighborhood communities throughout the city, centered around community gardens," Sharon Greenblatt, coordinator of community gardens at the Tel Aviv municipality, told Al-Monitor. ''What's more, it enables a dialogue between the municipality and the residents that does not revolve around parking tickets or municipal taxes. And there is another bonus as it encourages residents to grow food for self-consumption, taking into consideration the ecological aspect. In recent years, the awareness of sustainability [in Israel] has grown. This is also a celebration for the children, as healthy ways of living are promoted. There are lots of events surrounding the community gardens: give and take markets, an LGBT garden and a joint Jewish-Arab garden. Our experience shows that it is up to the local community to get organized and to approach us for guidance. If we ourselves try to create a neighborhood community, it will never work out."

The phenomenon is not unique to Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, there are dozens of community gardens, and similar community gardens are strewn all over the country. Mordechai Yarkoni, who is one of the activists behind the Israel Community Gardening project, which also offers an interactive map of all the community gardens in the country, told Al-Monitor that community gardens exist "from Metula [in the north] to Eilat [in the south]."

Yarkoni said, "What matters here is not the garden per se, but rather the community. We are engaged in the creation of communities across the country, and the gardens are mainly means to an end. The mapping of the gardens is designed to enable anyone interested in cultivating one to look at nearby gardens, to get in touch with people, to drop by and see how it is done, and to try to establish one on their own. People from all over the country approach us every day."

He added, "There are municipalities that readily offer their help and support, and where we are not offered support we volunteer to do it on our own." The Tel Aviv municipality, for instance, offers a community gardens irrigation system installation service, free irrigation water, expert advice, compost containers, and an unlimited supply of seedlings worth thousands of dollars a year for each garden.

Private citizens also get involved in urban gardening by creating a vegetable garden on the roofs of their houses or on balconies. At the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Youth Center, for instance, an experimental vertical vegetable garden is cultivated, sponsored by the municipality. Another project is currently underway in Tel Aviv, where growing food for self-consumption is taught by Eyal Engelmair, a gardening instructor and professional gardener who creates vegetable gardens on roofs and balconies. The course focuses on practical experience rather than theory. Engelmair told Al-Monitor that a course of 12 sessions will start in the coming weeks. He said that the community spirit and collaboration are key elements for a community garden to succeed. "The students help each other and develop an approach of mutual assistance. The course gets people really involved, and we hope that participants' fascination and enthusiasm will catch on and attract more people to get involved," Engelmair said.

A recent European Social Survey shows that while Israelis are leading on the indices of well-being and happiness, they are lagging behind on the indices of solidarity and sense of community. It seems that the community gardens give Israelis an opportunity to overcome the distressing feeling of social alienation and absence of community support. 

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