Independent documentary maker Cintia Cabib produced A Community of Gardeners to show the diversity of community gardens in Washington DC, an urban center with an unsuspected number of hidden gardening havens. The documentary came out in 2011, “just at the right time” Cabib says. As she explains in her synopsis, “Through the voices of young people, senior citizens, immigrants, garden volunteers and educators, A Community of Gardeners explores the vital role of seven urban community gardens as sources of fresh, nutritious food, outdoor classrooms, places of healing, links to immigrants’ native countries, centers of social interaction, and oases of beauty and calm in inner-city neighborhood.” Cabib reminds us that, while DC is greener than New York, the vast majority of the population lives in apartment buildings with no access to a garden.
Neither the documentary maker, nor the gardeners she films use the word “therapy” very much. But those seven gardens contribute to the physical, psychological and social well-being of the gardeners in obvious ways. “The woman who heads the Fort Stevens Community Garden association is fighting cancer. She says that the garden helps her because she forgets about her disease while she is gardening,” Cabib explains. “In a school for handicapped children, the wheelchair-accessible garden is one of their rare opportunities for getting outside and having sensory experiences.”
The Washington Youth Garden was started in 1971 within the US National Arboretum. It is a living classroom for the city’s youth who come to learn about the environment and nutrition. “The children said to me “I had never seen anything grow”. For city children, simply being outside and working in the mud is wonderful,” recounts the documentary maker. For one family of kids, the garden has become a refuge. “There are two boys and two girls. They were split up when their mother died. Teachers who knew them signed them up for programs at the Washington Youth Garden. It is a place for them to be together.”
At another garden, others reap different benefits. “At the 7th Street Garden, now Common Good City Farm since it moved, participants who volunteer receive fruits and vegetables in exchange for their labor instead of getting food at a food bank. They consider that the garden gives them back their dignity.” In her documentary, Cabib, an Argentine who lives in the DC area, provides a history of community gardens and also describes the Victory gardens that sprouted up around the US between the two world wars. “During uncertain economic times, growing your own food is comforting,” she says. “Community gardens have had ups and downs. They were very popular in the 60s and 70s. Chicago, New York and Philadelphia were at the forefront. Washington got into it. Now, community gardens are back in full force. A community garden is any lot that is grown by a group and I include school gardens in there.” For the past several years, Washington DC has been organizing Rooting DC, a day of workshops dedicated to urban gardening.
Cabib frequently attends screenings of her documentary where she is asked to explain how to start a community garden. She is sometimes accompanied by some of the gardeners featured in the film which has been shown on PBS and in many schools. “I hope to inspire people to create community gardens. In Washington, we still have many areas that qualify as food deserts. Nutrition and obesity are important issues in our society,” says Cabib. Of course, one of the most famous community gardeners in DC, in a category of her own, is Michelle Obama with her White House garden. Cabib is working on other documentary projects around this theme. “I want to produce shorter videos on topics like using food stamps at farmers’ markets. There are also truck farms, education programs that set up a farm inside a truck and take it around to schools.” There is no lack of subject matter and enthusiasm there.
You can watch the trailer of A Community of Gardeners here