If the best things in life are free, people who volunteer in community gardens on a regular basis get the most value from their efforts, local experts say.

That was incentive enough for David Darrow, a master’s student in public health at the University of Texas Medical Branch, to help start Deborah’s Garden at the corner of 25th and Postoffice streets on the island in 2010.

The garden was named after late founder Deborah Conrad.

Darrow said he regretted not being able to spend more time with his patients who lived in underprivileged areas and suffered from a whole culture of unhealthy influences.

“When you have 15 minutes with someone you can’t make much of a difference,” he said. “Gardens help bring people together long enough to benefit each other. The act of gardening combats chronic diseases caused by a sedentary lifestyle and an overabundance of resources. Most jobs these days don’t require physical labor, and food that’s cheap isn’t healthy.”

Anyone can rent one of the 4-foot-by-8-foot beds, of which there are 45, for $50 a year. People also can volunteer to care for the garden’s flock of chickens or trio of goats in exchange for fresh eggs and goat’s milk.

Darrow also started a community garden at the Wright Cuney Recreation Center, at 41st and Ball streets, which donates its produce to the food pantry at St. Vincent’s Episcopal House, 2817 Postoffice St.

It’s harder to get volunteers from that area even though they are the very people he had hoped would benefit most from horticultural therapy, he said.

“Other things dominate your life in impoverished neighborhoods, like crisis,” Darrow said. “You pick your battles, and healthy choices usually come last.”

Those who do follow through on their commitment reap the rewards, garden manager John Sessions said.

“The experience goes way beyond your 4-by-8 bed,” he said. “Gardens cross all political lines. We have staunch Republicans working alongside raving liberals. There’s nothing like a baby goat to bring people together.”

Most of the volunteers at Deborah’s Garden are lifelong gardeners like Mary Joe Singleton, who first rented a bed when she moved out of her house to a loft in downtown Galveston.

“I needed a place to do a little digging, so I talked to John (Sessions) and rented one of the little spaces so I’d have a place to go,” she said.

Like most beds in the garden, Singleton’s features vegetables, including kale, spinach and Swiss chard.

“It’s a very relaxing activity,” she said. “It’s like a creation. You put this stuff in, it grows and produces and gives you a sense of accomplishment. There’s nothing that beats a cold beer and looking at the beautiful earth with all the flowers and greenery that’s coming out of it.”

Singleton compared growing a garden to raising a child.

“It’s kind of like raising children,” she said. “Sometimes your roses get black spots and you have to treat them; other years, they come out looking great.”

Darrow agreed with the analogy.

“A garden is like a baby,” he said. “It needs constant care, constant attention and constant patience.”

The Plant a Seed — Feed the Need Community Garden at St. Christopher Episcopal Church in League City requires more care, attention and patience than director Ally Hardick said she can provide by herself.

What started as an herb garden expanded to 12 beds and a fruit tree orchard. In total, the garden produces more than 100 pounds of food annually, which is donated to the food panty at Interfaith Caring Ministries, she said.

“We need volunteers,” Hardick said. “This is truly a community outreach project that has surpassed its original scope.”

The garden does more than feed people, she said.

“It has become an opportunity for education and serves as an example for good stewardship of our limited resources on this planet,” Hardick said.

At a glance

• To volunteer at Deborah’s Garden, 25th and Postoffice streets, in Galveston, contact John Sessions at 409-765-7502 or stop by the garden sometime in the morning. 

• To volunteer at the Plant a Seed — Feed the Need Community Garden, St. Christopher Episcopal Church, 2508 St. Christopher Ave., in League City, contact Ally Hardick at lmc@stchrischurch.org or call 281-332-5553.

• St. Vincent’s Food Pantry, 2817 Postoffice St., in Galveston, is open five days a week between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. It is available without appointment on a first-come, first-served basis. Call 409-763-8521.

Contact reporter Whitney Hodgin at 409-683-5236 or whitney.hodgin@galvnews.com.

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