Plant a Garden. Grow a Community.

Change the world with one little basil plant

By SHARE

Here's a simple experiment for you to try, right there at your office. Find a sunny window that people pass by often or congregate around. Add a simple clay pot filled with soil and a basil plant on the ledge or a nearby table or desk. Watch what happens.

My prediction? It will go something like this: One person will see the basil, stop and smell it, and say how much he or she likes it. Another will ask how it's best used. Someone will chime in with recipe suggestions. The next person will give a story about a grandmother who used to grow not only basil but many other things as well. A funny story will somehow be told, maybe about the time a new bride made basil pesto and used a whole head of garlic instead of just a small clove, and how the new in-laws smiled through gritted teeth and said it was delicious. People will start laughing and getting a little louder. Others will come and ask what's going on. Several days later, a few pots of other types of herbs will magically appear. Conversations will continue. Community will grow. All because of that basil plant.

That's the amazing thing about gardening. It seeds conversation. Here are some more surprising ways to grow community through gardening:

1. Plant a mailbox garden. If you live in a house or condo that has a curb-side mailbox, you may find that it's a particularly sunny spot, well-suited for growing a small garden. That basil plant from the office? It would also do particularly well (along with other herbs) right there where you get your mail delivered. Now, instead of fretting over bills when you pick up your daily mail, you'll be figuring out how to accent your dinner with freshly snipped herbs. But that's just the beginning.

Dog-walkers with whom you may never have spoken might ask you what you're growing, and, most likely, you will instinctively share the herbs you're holding in your hand. You may even decide to put a small sign inviting neighbors to help themselves, even if you're like the growing number of Americans who don't know their neighbors. The next thing you know, other neighbors may start planting herbs around their mailboxes as well, you may start be getting waves from neighbors as you drive by, and it may almost seem as if the whole world has changed, all because of that mailbox garden.

2. Start a community garden. So, the basil plant at work was a hit, the mailbox garden has the whole neighborhood talking, and you may be feeling pretty energized by the effect of gardening on your expanding community. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, when the vacant piece of land you pass by each day starts calling to you with an increasingly nagging thought. "That would make a great spot for a community garden," you may find yourself saying aloud, having no earthly idea how to do this. Bored at work one day (if you can even imagine), you may do a quick Internet search, fall upon the American Community Gardening Association's website, and see that most of the heavy lifting (figuratively speaking) has already been done when you click that simple tab, "Starting a Community Garden." . It's all there, from forming a planning committee and choosing, preparing, and developing the site to organizing, managing, and troubleshooting. There's a pit stop for insurance, and a long list of resources at the end (note the part about visiting a local nursery, and don't forget about Farmer D Organics as a resource). You may then put the word out in your neighborhood newsletter and to your social media contacts, and the next thing you know, buoyed by the positive response and generous offers of help and supplies, you may find yourself at City Hall asking permission to use that public land. The plots will most likely "sell out" almost immediately, and you may find that suddenly it's Saturday morning, you're knee-deep in wood chips, you have about 50 new friends of all ages , and you're achieving something about which you actually feel proud.

3. Grow your city (and your work skills). After the community garden turns out to be a hit, new garden ideas and projects may start emerging. You may find out that the nearby swim/tennis club has a patch of sunny land by the parking lot. Schools want to get in on the action, and a church or synagogue wants to grow food for those in need as part of its food pantry outreach or commitment to Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning "repair the world." Someone may suggest planting herbs instead of annuals in those big planters on Main Street and maybe even planting an orchard in the park; a restaurant wants to start growing microgreens on its roof; your next-door neighbors (strangers just months ago) are thinking about getting backyard chickens; and you all discover that a few of these things are technically illegal where you live. You may end up back at City Hall, where you now know the mayor and city council members personally. You may get appointed to a committee where you start to work on city zoning ordinance recommendations that allow your city to grow in all sorts of new ways. You may find you start getting E-mails from neighboring cities with questions about gardening initiatives in their cities, too. And it grows from there. You grow your work skills through these volunteer efforts in ways you never imagined (and your boss has noticed this). You feel healthier and more invigorated than you have in years, and you finally know your work colleagues and neighbors. All because of that simple little basil plant.

Who wants to try this experiment? Simply bring a basil plant into work this week and let us all know how it goes in the comments section. Tune in next week and I'll share some tips about using gardens for healing.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Daron Joffe is a 30-something eco-entrepreneur who lives to make a difference in the world one homegrown organic fruit and vegetable at a time. Known as "Farmer D," Joffe has grown food for celebrities, private communities, and elementary schools in his "town-by-town mission to re-energize the food culture." His products are sold at select Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores. Born in South Africa and based in Atlanta, Farmer D is online at www.farmerD.com.