After a storm destroyed several trees on the grounds of my cousins’ church, the congregation decided to use the newly cleared land for a community garden. They set up some work days, installed raised beds and an irrigation system, and are now eagerly looking forward to harvesting their first crops. A portion of the produce (the ‘first fruits’ if you will) is earmarked for the church’s food pantry.

Granted, these are my tree-hugging cousins, the ones with the worm farm in their kitchen (don’t ask), but they’re not alone. Groups from California to Houston to New York have community gardens—there’s even one reported in a town north of the Arctic Circle, housed in an old hockey arena turned greenhouse. Why are all these people coming together to play in the dirt? Consider these benefits:

The Harvest: Juicy vine-ripened tomatoes, sun-warmed strawberries, zucchini (there’s always a ton of zucchini), lettuce, onions, even flowers. It doesn’t come any fresher than picking it yourself and when you’ve watched over your crop from seed to maturity, it tastes even better. Plus you’ll gain nutritious food without taking a financial hit at the grocery store. Bonus for parents: kids who are involved in growing vegetables are often more open to eating them. (And as part of a community garden, you’ll have someone to share all that zucchini with.)

The Great Outdoors: Most of us spend so much time breathing stale inside air; it’ll do you good to get out there and breathe, soak in some Vitamin D, and get a little gentle exercise. (Just don’t forget the allergy meds and sunscreen.)

The Community: Shared enterprise builds unity. Connection is an important part of life; it helps us live longer and keeps us more emotionally healthy. Yes, you may be able to garden all by yourself, but like most things it’s more fun when you do it with others. Your garden may attract a wide range of interested parties, providing all sorts of opportunities for intergenerational and cross-cultural connections.

The Opportunity: So you don’t like zucchini or eggplant or whatever. You can share your bounty with a local food bank, a struggling family, or a friend in need. Maybe you know an older neighbor or relative who would enjoy teaching you (and your garden buddies) to can veggies or make jam. That would give them the opportunity to feel useful, give you a chance to bond, and strengthen ties of family and friendship. Not to mention the jars of goodness you’ll have to take home; remember, homemade jam or pickles can make a fine Christmas gift for friends and coworkers.

The Witness: “We were looking for a way to give a tangible witness to the love of Jesus Christ,” my tree-hugging cousin explained, “a visible expression that speaks to non-believers as well as the faithful. A community garden provides fresh and nutritious food for those less fortunate, while teaching people how to improve their lives by growing their own healthy and delicious food. As stewards of God’s earth we use an organic/sustainable method, which in the long run provides healthier food at a lower cost and helps to protect our environment.”

Breaking Ground on Your Garden

It may not be necessary to reinvent the wheel; you may be able to find an established community garden in your area and join their endeavor. The American Community Gardening Association offers links to gardens across the U.S. and Canada, plus sites in the United Kingdom and Australia here

Then again, maybe starting your own garden sounds pretty good and you’re wondering where to begin. The good news is there’s a plethora of information out there on setting up a community garden. The bad news is, there’s a plethora of information out there and you could get so caught up planning you never get around to planting. (Or is that just me?) If you do decide to start from scratch, here are a few things you’ll want to consider before digging in to your garden project . . .