A new garden at Erie Park would give access to all (Gardening for Life)

I recently made a new friend, Colleen Roche, while walking to the Montclair Disability Pride rally on May 1. While chatting with Colleen on the way to the rally, I learned a lot in less than a mile’s distance.

Colleen was adept at maneuvering her electric wheelchair to overcome the many obstacles that she encountered on the way, sometimes even having to risk her own well-being while circumventing barriers that a person with full mobility would hardly notice.

When we arrived at the rally, another person in a wheelchair caught my attention with a sign saying, “A step is a wall!” Imagine how many people are left behind because we fail to provide the access they need to carry out routine activities that others take for granted?

One of those activities is gardening. On the way to the rally, I described to Colleen a new community project: the Erie Park Community Garden for All, an all-inclusive community garden. Her reaction was ecstatic; I have never seen such excitement and joy about a community project. Hearing the details of the project, she was absolutely delighted. Colleen loves gardening, but it is not possible for her or for many others in our community because of the lack of a barrier-free community garden.

An all-inclusive garden is designed for accessibility for people with disabilities. It is barrier-free to ensure access for all, including people using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers or canes.

This new garden, which needs the approval of the Township Council, will create a space for outdoor activities for people with disabilities. They will be able to engage in gardening, join in environmental activities, get involved in the community and learn about growing food, pollinator gardening and wildlife habitats. The garden will also serve as an open special education classroom for special education students.

The Erie Park Community Garden for All would be the first barrier-free, fully inclusive park garden in Montclair – 100% accessible. It will have amenities and educational opportunities for all ages and abilities, including a sensory garden, a pollinator habitat and a vegetable garden. The project is an initiative of the Northeast Earth Coalition with the support of the Essex County Master Gardeners Program, the Montclair People With Disabilities Advisory Committee, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and Montclair citizens Jacoba Coes, Mary Ann Villanueva, Alma Schneider, Stacey Cermak , Daniel Cruz and me.

The Erie Park Community Garden for All would provide access to people with disabilities, allowing them to engage in gardening, join in environmental activities and learn about pollinator gardening and wildlife habitats. (Courtesy Mary Ann Villanueva, Jacoba Coes, Daniel Cruz)
The Erie Park Community Garden for All would provide access to people with disabilities, allowing them to engage in gardening, join in environmental activities and learn about pollinator gardening and wildlife habitats. (Courtesy Mary Ann Villanueva, Jacoba Coes, Daniel Cruz)

Benefits of Community Gardening

Gardening is a pleasant outdoor activity with many benefits, both physical and mental. It is a great form of physical activity, and vegetable gardening provides home-grown produce, promoting healthy eating.

Gardening involves gentle physical exercise. According to Science Daily, “common gardening tasks give you moderate to high-intensity physical activity.” It “gives you a chance to get outside and engage in some good old-fashioned physical activity. It gets the blood circulating and releases your endorphins. It also keeps you limber and improves muscle and joint performance.” In short, gardening is a great way to get moving and stay active.

Science Daily points out that gardening promotes motor and cognitive skills since it requires different kinds of activities involving different types of movements, particularly with the hands and fingers. Think about the activities involved in gardening:

  • Repotting or transplanting seedlings and sprouts
  • Picking produce from the plant
  • Planting seeds or bulbs
  • Weeding the garden bed
  • Pruning plants such as bonsai trees
  • Scooping up dirt with a trowel

All of these activities help to increase hand coordination while using other muscles throughout the body, improving physical strength and joint flexibility.

Community gardening also provides opportunities to socialize with others. Spending too much time isolated at home can adversely affect one’s emotional health, contributing to depression, social anxiety disorder and other mental health problems.

Community gardening gets you out of the house and puts you in touch with others. It’s a chance to meet new people and learn new things. Connecting with others in garden projects can give a boost to your social life.

Gardening gives people an opportunity to experience a sense of responsibility and care. It connects us to nature and other living things. It helps release high levels of the hormones serotonin and dopamine, lifting our spirits. Taking part in a community garden also presents opportunities to volunteer and give back to your community.

We are fortunate to live in a town where almost everybody can enjoy the benefits of community gardening — everybody except those with disabilities, until now. That must be changed. People in Montclair with disabilities deserve to have public space that welcomes them, connects them with nature and helps them to socialize. That is why we are promoting the creation of the first all-inclusive public space in town.

The joys and benefits of gardening should be open to all. The proposed Erie Park Garden for All would make this a reality in Montclair.

Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.

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