Springfield Community Gardens: Innovation, Education, and Collaboration


Our local community gardens offer fresh produce, help facilitate the growth of new farmers, and have served as a hub for thousands of volunteers since 2010. We are located in Springfield, Missouri. We have 17 gardens, 3 urban farms, a community food forest, and a test kitchen. Our efforts are the result of an engaged and ambitious community. Springfield Community Gardens is built of thousands of people and stories each driven by a unique combination of innovation, education, and collaboration. We work hard to gather these stories and document our organizational history with authenticity. From neighborhood kinship to public educators, SCG fosters connection at every level.

The Rogers Community Food Forest (RCFF) run by Ben Tegeler is a fantastic example of innovation. The City of Springfield donated the lot where RCFF is located, and Ben began planting the site in 2018. This site is different from SCG’s other gardens - it’s not a garden at all! It's a food forest which is a diverse planting of edible plants made to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. The goal is a self-sustaining site where people can grow food and connect to the area’s natural history. In contrast with traditional community gardens, the food forest focuses on holistic resilience and biophilic design over managing and maintaining specific production areas.

There are seven general layers in a food forest. Engaging multiple layers creates a more robust and resilient ecosystem and allows for more production across layers. Many food forests begin by planting the overstory such as trees that take 2-5 years before they start producing. RCFF is only a few years old and just now starting to produce.

Knowledge from many disciplines including permaculture, arboriculture, ecology, microbiology, and natural history collaborate to focus on the land and natural systems already at work. No two food forests will look alike because they are tailored to their region. Produce reflects what best grows in the region. RCFF currently hosts native and hearty apple, pear, persimmon, jujubee, pawpaw, hazelnut, cherry and mulberry cultivars with plans for future densification.

SCG aims to plan for plant communities, not individuals. Species from different forest layers provide shelter, shade, and nutrients for each other. Food forests allow growth and change with minimal interference after the initial “hard work” of site design and layout, soil testing, cultivar choice, and planting are completed. They can last for generations, growing a community along with produce.

The food forest has been a highly educational journey so far. Another instance of education at work in SCG is the Reed Academy Community Garden run by science teacher, Marcal. In 2019, he started working in the garden and heard about SCG through our lead farmer, who was his barista at Starbucks at the time! According to Marcal, “From there, it was just a matter of asking for help and taking on the challenge of supporting the garden through my work at Reed Academy as a science teacher. We’re fortunate to have support from Springfield Community Gardens, Woodland Heights Neighborhood Association, the staff at Reed, and Springfield Public Schools.”

Marcal connects the material his students are learning in the classroom to what goes on in the garden. This includes units on the life cycle, plant anatomy, genetics, and more. Students choose what to grow, seed start, transplant, maintain, and harvest with Marcal’s guidance. Garden produce is sent home with students, faculty, and staff. “By far, my favorite part is how the garden impacts our students. Many of them have never grown anything, much less harvested produce through a growing season. Showing them how our work in the classroom applies to the garden is a bonus,” said Marcal.

SCG takes pride in the community collaboration that propels our organization forward. Without the help of volunteers, our work would be impossible. Each garden is run by one or more Garden Leaders. The Delaware Neighborhood Garden is a wonderful example of this collaborative system at work. Jean has been with the garden since its planning stage in 2016, with Teresa joining as a co-leader in 2018. Teresa became interested after walking through the neighborhood and noticing the garden. While they seem like lifelong friends in each other's company, Jean and Teresa met through the gardens just a few years ago.

The Delaware Neighborhood Garden is a space for people of all ages to relax and plant together. From the pergola built by an Eagle Scout to the hand painted stepping stones to the native perennial flowers chosen to attract pollinators, the work of many individuals can be seen in the garden. Volunteers from Missouri State University and the Delaware Neighborhood Association (DNA) work with Garden Leaders, Jean and Teresa, to maintain the garden. They also receive help from student workers from the Citizenship and Service-Learning Office at Missouri State University. Produce is given to volunteers and often incorporated into meals for unsheltered and low-income families.

When asked for advice to beginning gardeners, Jean said, “Start small and volunteer at a community garden to learn from those with more experience.” She and Teresa both grew up gardening and want to share what they have learned with people from families where gardening may have skipped a generation or two. Teresa adds, “You learn new little things from others. You’re never done learning about gardening. Everyone can be both a student and a teacher!”

The Meador Community Garden, established in 2015, is another location where education and collaboration are abundant. At Meador, Garden Leaders Elaine and Brandon work closely to ensure a positive experience for their neighborhood. Elaine said, “I enjoy sharing knowledge with volunteers who are interested in organic growing.” Seeing the volunteers’ sense of accomplishment at harvest time makes Elaine proud. Brandon most enjoys the ecosystem of plants, pollinators, and insects that the garden creates as well as the opportunity to get outside and use his hands alongside community members. Brandon reminds new gardeners to enjoy the craftsmanship of gardening and the meditation of being out in nature. For beginning gardeners, Elaine believes that easing in with a few plants is best. She suggests lettuce, radishes, beans, and squash as good places to start.

Springfield Community Gardens believes that anyone can garden! These are just a few of thousands of stories and approaches that make up our organization. There are many types of gardening - container/porch gardening, square foot gardening, waffle/olla pot gardening, the list goes on. Make sure to do some research on what type of gardening is best for you. As a volunteer, you get hands-on experience and gain knowledge in creating a garden from start to finish using organic practices and different gardening methods. You then get to share in the harvest, eat some of what you have grown, and know that you have been an integral part in donating produce to local food programs.
We want to help guide and inspire other individuals and communities by sharing our resources and experiences that have helped us along the way.

Story contributed by Anna Withers, Farmer and Resource Development Manager, Springfield Community Gardens

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“Springfield Community Gardens: Innovation, Education, and Collaboration,” Community of Gardens, accessed February 21, 2024, https:/​/​communityofgardens.​si.​edu/​items/​show/​12474.​
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