Environmentalist David Wasmuth, second from right, with student interns from the Northeast Earth Coalition at the Brookdale Park Overlook Spring Restoration Project. (COURTESY JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ)

For Montclair Local

Gardening is much more than planting seeds and growing flowers or food. It is a holistic life experience that allows us to connect with our surrounding world in many ways. 

At a personal level, if you want to experience the joy of accomplishing something in life, plant a garden. Gardening is also very therapeutic, slowing us down and forcing patience by putting us back in touch with the slower cycles of nature. It is an eye-opening experience. 

Throughout my gardening journey, I have learned a lot about plants, soil and their connections with wildlife. Every season, I discover things I never imagined existed or were possible.  It is a wonderful world!

The social benefits of making new friends:

Over the years, gardening has given me a lot of long-lasting friends. It seems that people who garden in some way have synchronized nature’s energy with themselves. 

I think that explains why gardeners have a special positive energy that is contagious. So, it is no surprise that people you meet on this journey would become true friends. 

There is also a multiplier effect: If you meet gardeners, they will introduce you to others, and your social circle will expand.

The social impact of our community gardens:

An Indian proverb says, “All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.” Gardening implies hope and future. When you plant a seed or a tree, you are investing in the future. You are also creating a legacy for new generations. 

But at the same time, by cultivating friendships and networking with our new friends we are building community and providing support to great causes: environmental protection, social justice, mutual aid, etc. 

The COVID pandemic has brought to us heightened awareness on many levels. Over the past two years, I have had beautiful experiences meeting volunteers at our community gardens in town. 

The produce from these gardens is donated to local food programs, supplying those in need with fresh, nutritious food. We met for about 26 weeks during the gardening season. Most of the time, we had the same people coming to plant, maintain and harvest the garden.  

Most of them did not initially have the knowledge to grow food or awareness of the social impact of community gardens. Between seeding, watering, caring for the plants and harvesting, we had really high-quality time, chatting about different topics and getting to know our new friends better. 

I found these conversations remarkable because, in this time of social media, I feel that we are losing the personal touch of having face-to-face conversations outdoors with new acquaintances. In the process, we realized that we share the same concerns about our community and see social issues that affect us all. 

It is inspiring to see how fortunate we are in Montclair to have so many people who feel compelled to do something for our community and people in need.  

Planting the seeds for the future, the legacy:

One of the most rewarding experiences is working with our youth, listening to and learning from them. Gardening is considered a serious and important subject in our public school curriculum. I have met with some of our most dedicated teachers and worked with them to teach our kids about growing their own food or creating a pollinator garden or a wildlife habitat. 

When our youth come to our community gardens, they are fascinated to see how easy it is to grow their own food and to learn about the provenance of the food that they eat at home. 

Most of them were not aware that vegetables and fruits are seasonal. When we tell them that strawberries grow in the spring, they question why they see them in the supermarkets all year long. 

That question is the beginning of a teaching moment; it leads us to talk about local food, seasonal planting and the difference between the taste of a fresh tomato and a supermarket-bought tomato, which I call a “dead tomato.” 

Youth are curious and eager to learn, assimilate and implement the things that attract their attention. We never waste an opportunity to pass on to them the knowledge we hold. When they come back the following week, they are amazed at how much the vegetable garden changed in just a few days. 

The seeds that they helped us to plant have started to unfold. We see in their faces the wonder of nature, and we feel rewarded because these seeds are our hope for a better future.  

We are all related, and everything is connected. What we do at home has both local and global repercussions. 

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