Seeds for the Heart in the Inner City

A PATCH OF EDEN: AMERICA'S INNER-CITY GARDENERS

By H. Patricia Hynes

Chelsea Green Publishing

185 pp., $18.95

A weed wouldn't dare show its head in these gardens!

Anyone who still thinks of gardening as a frivolous hobby should read Patricia Hynes's deeply absorbing and compassionate book, "A Patch of Eden."

With a researcher's eye for detail and a keen sense of social justice, Hynes, a professor of environmental health at Boston University, traces the development of community gardens in neglected urban areas of Harlem, North Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.

These gardens have been hacked out of abandoned lots or reclaimed from public parks not by official mandate, but through the efforts of individuals, many of them women.

Hynes introduces community activists such as Cathrine Sneed, who started an eight-acre farm at the San Francisco County Jail. "The Garden Project," as it is known, teaches inmates how to plant, cultivate, and distribute organic produce to several well-known restaurants and homeless shelters in the area.

Sneed is convinced that learning to care for plants can change people's perceptions of themselves and others. "For many," Sneed says, "this is the first dirt they can wash off."

In fact, what makes "A Patch of Eden" remarkable is not just the lessons in politics, race, and economics, of which there are many.

Hynes goes deeper by asking participants to explain and show what these gardens have done for them, and the answers would warm any garden-lover's heart.

In San Francisco, a young man put it this way, "What I am doing is feeding myself with love for plants. I never knew I had these feelings inside me, now I do." Another individual told Hynes, "Hey, if I can take care of this fava bean, why can't I take care of myself?"

For many of these workers, gardening allows some control over their lives. As one person said, "You can be weeding a bed, and it's like weeding your life."

"A Patch of Eden" offers more than just successful models of community gardening found in such books. Hynes gives readers a sense that dignity and self-esteem can blossom in spite of harsh conditions. This is thanks to the resilience and determination of these neighborhood gardeners and the soil and plants they lovingly till.

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