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How Library Gardens are Growing Communities in Georgia

January 26, 2018

A staff member waters a plant in library
A local branch staff member waters the library’s Tower Garden, a self-sustaining, vertical, aeroponic system that has become an unlikely cornerstone of Gwinnett County Public Library’s STEM programming. (Photo Credit: Gwinnett County Public Library)

Project Snapshot

Project Name: Homegrown Gwinnett
Grant Log Number: SP-02-16-0013-16
Year Awarded: 2016
Grant Program Name: Sparks! Ignition Grants for Libraries
Recipient: Gwinnett County Public Library

“These Tower Gardens have compelled each of our 15 branches to reach out to their communities, learn what their communities need, and through gardening and the resulting produce, serve underrepresented populations across the country. The Homegrown Gwinnett initiative demonstrates that our libraries can serve our communities beyond books.” – Meg Wilson, Norcross Branch Manager, Gwinnet County Public Library

It all started with the Bronx Green Machine some 800 miles away in an inner-city classroom, where a local teacher introduced Tower Gardens to his class. The resulting NPR story caught the attention of Library Branch Manager Meg Wilson, in Norcross, Georgia, who also happened to know someone in the “Tower Garden” business. What occurred in the 12 months after Wilson heard that story still amazes staff and patrons of Gwinnett County Public Library.

In less than 12 months, the investment in Tower Gardens and the system-wide Homegrown Gwinnett program created a popular program that aligned the Georgia library system with unlikely community partners and further solidified the library’s role as a community catalyst.

Tackling Tough Issues through Gardening

A table with a basket and fresh herbs
“A Table of Abundance” is a local branch program that provides herb samples produced by the Tower Gardens. These samples were used in discussions of healthy eating. (Photo Credit: Gwinnett County Public Library)

When Wilson and her team started conducting research on Tower Gardens—self-sustaining, aeroponic gardens that grow vertically using water and minerals to feed the plant—they discovered that there was much more need in the community than they had thought.

“One of the things we found when we were conducting research ahead of our grant application is that Gwinnett County has a lot of food deserts,” said Charles Pace, Executive Director of GCPL. “There is a lack of good nutrition education and a high rate of obesity. Knowing that, we saw these towers as educational tools aimed at all ages to solve some of these health issues the county was facing.”

The towers, which were implemented in all 15 of Gwinnett County library branches, became a resource for teaching county residents how to have proper relationships with food.

“The community as a whole has benefitted from these Tower Gardens,” said Pace. “They really have had a universal appeal.”

Sparking STEM/STEAM Programs in Gwinnett

Through their IMLS Sparks! Ignition grant, which offers special funding opportunities through the IMLS National Leadership Grant program, Homegrown Gwinnett’s 15 Tower Gardens provided 183 separate programs in STEM and STEAM, early literacy, and culinary literacy, while creating and strengthening crucial community partnerships.

“In each library, the garden itself has become a high-profile, attention grabbing means to an end,” said Wilson. “They allowed us to increase our STEM and STEAM programming for all ages, and also compelled each branch to reach out to their communities and provide produce and other education through the towers.”

A chef makes a presentation to a group at library
Chef Amanda Manning uses fresh produce from the branch’s Tower Garden in a library culinary literacy program. Known for her work with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Manning incorporated Tower Garden herbs into each dish. (Photo Credit: Gwinnett County Public Library)

In one year, virtually every community group served by the library system benefitted from Homegrown Gwinnett. Many home school groups, scout troops, preschool and special needs classes discovered the basic steps for growing a seed and the process of gardening. Programs were developed for Hispanic and Asian library users, showing how to use herbs and plants to prepare a variety of salsas, and gardens became part of English language classes by using the towers to teach food vocabulary. The Teen Chopped Competition was a fan favorite, engaging teens to compete in culinary competitions using ingredients from the Tower Gardens.

The science behind the Tower Gardens wasn’t the only inspiration for literacy activities at the 15 branches. Using the gardens' visual appeal, branches also taught photography and art classes, tapping into the participants’ senses and engaging their imaginations to create works of art.

“We haven’t found an audience that hasn’t been engaged with Homegrown Gwinnett and these Tower Gardens,” said Barbara Spruill, Division Director of Grants and Community Partnerships at Gwinnett County Public Library. “It has allowed us to make new friends and partnerships on many different levels.”

Addressing Food Insecurity

Teen volunteers package fresh produce
Teen volunteers help package fresh produce harvested from the Tower Garden to distribute to a local food co-op. Many of GCPL’s branches chose to donate produce to specific food pantries or food co-ops in the community. (Photo credit: Gwinnett County Public Library)

Each branch was asked how they would use their produce in addressing their individual community need. While some used the herbs and plants as part of the culinary literacy programs, others identified food co-ops, Meals on Wheels programs, and other donation opportunities to address food insecurity in the region.

“One of the more important partnership extensions resulting from the Tower Gardens was staff participation in the Gwinnet Coalition’s Food Subcommittee,” said Spruill. “The group helped us track different organizations’ programs to address food insecurity and helped us think of ways that our Tower Gardens could supplement those programs.”

Working with the Food Subcommittee further alerted the library to the needs of families and seniors residing in extended-stay hotels. Many branches take gently used books weeded from their collections to these hotels, as well as to local food co-ops. Along with the donated books, the library will also provide storytimes to the area food pantries or co-ops. Some of the fresh produce donated to Senior Services was used in the Meals on Wheels service.

Additionally, the Gwinnett County Food Services Program Coordinator partnered with the library to coordinate system-wide, monthly donations of produce for a senior lunch program at a local community center, raising awareness of the Tower Gardens and library services.

Homegrown Gwinnett

Library staff member pollinates a plant
A library staff member tries her hand at hand-pollinating during a Tower Garden program. Many branches hope to incorporate hand pollination to broaden the variety of plant and herbs produced by the towers. (Photo Credit: Gwinnett County Public Library)

When the project was first envisioned, it was thought that gardening would be the only draw and only source of programming for patrons. But in one year, these towers have cast a wider net of engagement both inside the library and outside in the community. In fact, in the year since the towers were installed library programming attendance has increased by seven percent across the system.

“The programming has really knocked our socks off,” said Wilson. “From a staff point of view, Homegrown Gwinnett has given each of our staff members the opportunity to be creative. They are able to identify their passions and satisfy those passions with these towers. There is really no end to the creativity.”

When the grant concluded in late 2017, branches were asked if they wanted to keep their towers, and not one said no. Because of the self-sustaining nature of the towers, each branch has the opportunity to continue programming and donations while expanding tower structures and use. Some of those expanded features and activities include trying hand pollination, building upon culinary initiatives, or treating garden tiers like books and allowing patrons to check those tiers out for personal use.

“It has a lot of room to expand,” said Wilson. “And it fits into our mission as a library to support information, education, and recreational interests of our patrons by establishing partnerships that broaden the scope of our offering.”

In 2017, Homegrown Gwinnett received Urban Libraries Council Honorable Mention: Healthy Produce and Fresh Ideas. In their entry, the library reported that tower garden programming engaged 2,183 people, all of whom, in some form or another, commented, “I didn’t know libraries do things like this.” Indeed!

About the Project

Project Name: Homegrown Gwinnett
Grant Log Number: SP-02-16-0013-16
Year Awarded: 2016
Grant Program Name: Sparks! Ignition Grants for Libraries
Recipient: Gwinnett County Public Library
Website: www.gwinnettpl.org
Project Contact:

Barbara Spruill, Division Director of Grants and Community Partnerships
bspruill@gwinnettpl.org
Phone: 678-985-6078

Resources:

Issues: 
Programs: 
Sparks! Ignition Grants for Libraries
Log Number: 
SP-02-16-0013-16
State: 
GA