Community Gardens Support Healthy Living in Delaware

Delaware’s community gardens provide spaces to get outdoors and connect with neighbors—nourishing mind, body and soul.

On the way from farm to table, Perrin Smith often skips the table part, plucking a sun-kissed cherry tomato from the vine and popping it directly into her mouth. “Fresh food just tastes better,” she says. “I can’t get enough bok choy, peas, lettuce and arugula.”

Smith tills the soil at Lewes Community Garden in Great Marsh Park, the site of a former baseball field. Throughout the First State, gardeners are putting down communal roots in inner-city Wilmington, a Dover churchyard, downtown Milton and other pockets of green. Just-picked produce also flows through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where consumers subscribe to regular deliveries from small local farms.

Three Counties of Crops

In Lewes, the gardeners are committed to organic practices, as well as making gardening available to folks of all ages and abilities.

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“The people who are drawn to our garden are interested in eating food that isn’t drenched in pesticides,” Smith points out.

Many community gardens get support and expertise from municipal and county agencies. Lewes is an all-volunteer garden rooted in sweat equity. One volunteer takes charge of the pollinator garden, which attracts bees and butterflies to the crops. Others contribute to the website, help with fundraising, manage food donations, keep the weeds down and tend plots when their fellow gardeners are on vacation.

“There’s always work to be done in a garden, and we’ve all agreed to help manage it,” Smith says. “But it’s not just work—while you are gardening, you also are making friends.”

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Of the garden’s 56 raised beds, 52 are rented for $75 a year, two are reserved for sponsored families and two are designated for produce that will be given away. Each bed measures 4 feet by 8 feet, enough to supply most households and then some. In 2023, gardeners donated 415 pounds of veggies to the Teach a Person to Fish Society, a nonprofit that offers nutritious meals, and the Rehoboth Community Resource Center’s food rescue program.

At the Milford Community Garden, next to the old National Guard Armory on Walnut Street, a .4-acre plot houses 22 rented raised beds and four rows of shared space. Fruit trees and native plants are interspersed throughout the property to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Gardeners who have produce to spare stock a free veggie stand.

“It’s not just work—while you are gardening, you also are making friends.”

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In the wintertime, while the garden grows sleepy, there are still many tasks to accomplish. Gardeners turn the compost pile, prep the soil, and tend spinach and other hardy plants that are comfortable with cold. Garlic planted in the fall grows beneath a protective blanket of straw.

In Dover, the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church established a community garden to provide nutritious food for neighbors and a local food pantry. On the Delaware State University campus, students who volunteer to weed are rewarded fresh herbs and veggies, says Megan Pleasanton, Master Gardener coordinator in Kent County. Students also accrue service hours they can apply to commitments for scholarships and sororities. Neighbors can help themselves to peppers and squash from the community basket.

“Based on student feedback, we’ll grow a lot more herbs this year,” Pleasanton says. “We will also put in a small pumpkin patch.”

The Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH) in Wilmington has deep roots in community gardens, engaging neighbors by teaching them to grow produce. DCH founded the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition (DEUFFC) and has provided foundational support to more than 40 community gardens throughout New Castle County.

“We have a long history of involvement in urban agriculture and local food initiatives, including helping to establish Wilmington’s first urban farm in 2009,” says Sue Wyndham, DCH’s director of programs. “A once-vacant lot, the E.D. Robinson Urban Farm now serves as a source for fresh and nutritious food, beauty, and a place for community interaction. It is a great example of our mission in action and shows how community greening can transform a neighborhood.”

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Planting Roots

The roots of community agriculture date back to the 1980s, when programs were launched at two farms in New England—one in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire. In recent years, the movement has blossomed like zucchini after a summer rain. The government doesn’t track CSAs, but a survey by Penn State University’s extension service found that as many as 50,000 CSAs are now operating in the United States.

In Delaware, there are at least 17, according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture. The model benefits farmers because they can sell shares or boxes directly to consumers, without an intermediary. Because customers pay upfront or by the week, farmers have a guaranteed steady stream of revenue.

Highland Orchard Farms in North Wilmington, now in its 192nd year, operates year-round, coaxing produce from structural plastic tunnels that prolong the growing season. Its CSA has grown from 30 shares a week to more than 400, with drop-off spots from Bear to Philadelphia. Customers pay $17 for a small share, $13 for a fruit box and $37 for a large share. Honey and eggs are an optional add-on. May through October, there’s a flower share.

Boxes go out within 24 hours of harvesting, while nutritional values are at their highest. “Our customers tell us that everything lasts longer because it’s so fresh,” says farmer Ruth Linton.

Patrons also report they enjoy experimenting with unfamiliar produce, like mild and crunchy white salad turnips and kohlrabi, a sweet and peppery Northern European cabbage.

At Highland Orchard Farms in Wilmington, farmer Ruth Linton says the CSA has grown from 30 shares a week to more than 400, with drop-off spots from Bear to Philadelphia.
At Highland Orchard Farms in Wilmington, farmer Ruth Linton says the CSA has grown from 30 shares a week to more than 400, with drop-off spots from Bear to Philadelphia. Photo by Maria Deforrest.

“You never miss out on local strawberries [or] blueberries—the things that are here for a very short time.”

“People can eat seasonally. You never miss out on local strawberries [or] blueberries—the things that are here for a very short time,” she says.

Operated by fourth-generation farmers Scot and Corey Givens, the Farm Stand at the Givens runs its CSA from May through September, offering doorstep delivery in Sussex County and neighboring areas in Maryland. Options range from the quarter-bushel mini box for $24 to the large bushel box for $48, delivered weekly or biweekly. Customers can pay an upcharge to customize their boxes. Those who pick up their boxes at the farm in Laurel get a $2 discount.

The Penn Farm CSA is active for 10 weeks, from June 18 to Aug. 20, with pickups every Tuesday at Wheelys Farmstand on Frenchtown Road in New Castle. Shares cost $200, and boxes include enough produce to serve a family of four for a week. Among the veggies: broccoli, chard, tomatoes, cabbage, turnips, squash, beets and watermelon—all grown from non-GMO seeds.

Back at the Lewes garden, Smith and the other gardeners tend their crops. Clusters of marigolds interspersed among the tomatoes and cauliflower are a natural deterrent to pests.

Like the tender lettuces and heirloom tomatoes that spring from the soil, the gardeners plan to keep growing.

“We want to add at least one bed that is ADA-compliant, to make gardening accessible for people with disabilities,” she says. “I can’t think of a better place to be than in the garden.”

Looking for locally grown produce to power your family’s health through summer?

The First State offers the following:

Adkins Produce

Pickup location: Millsboro

Bright Spot Urban Farm

Pickup locations: New Castle, Wilmington (limited home delivery)
658-4171 ext. 189

Dittmar Family Farms

Pickup locations: Dover, Felton, Lewes

Eastview Farms

Pickup location: Frankford

Fifer Orchards

Pickup locations: Wyoming, Dewey Beach, Lewes

Filasky’s Produce

Pickup location: Middletown

Hattie’s Garden

Pickup location: Lewes

Highland Orchard Farms

Pickup locations: Newark, Wilmington

Hopkins Brothers Produce

Pickup location: Lewes (and limited home delivery)

Magee Farms

Pickup locations: Selbyville, Lewes (at Magee Farms farmers markets)

Marvelous Produce

Pickup location: Seaford (delivery options available)

Nash’s Veggies

Pickup locations: Lincoln, Milford and Lewes farmers markets

Penn Farm

Pickup location: New Castle

Sassafras Farmstead

Pickup locations: Georgetown, Frederica

The Farm Stand at the Givens

Pickup location: Laurel (and limited home delivery)

The Produce Peddler

Pickup location: Newark (and limited home delivery)

Urban Acres Produce

Home-delivery location: Wilmington

Related: Wash Your Produce to Reduce Glyphosate Exposure in Delaware

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