I've got a project I'd like you to consider as 2012 gets rolling. It'll get you into gardening mode long before freeze warnings are a distant memory, and quite possibly make you and your gardening pals local heroes. Let me explain. Anthropologists tell us that agriculture is the basis of civilization. Instead of full-time hunting and gathering, humans literally put down roots, opening the way for cultivation of crops and domestication of animals. This fundamental shift led to spare time for specialists like bakers, animal-skin tanners, and video game designers. I'll bet it wasn't long before native plant species were appreciated not only for their practical uses, but also as a splash of color to complement the throw pillows. I should probably look this up, but I'm guessing it didn't take long for community minded folks to propose, "Why don't we spruce up Main Street with some hanging baskets?! We'll create a sense of community pride, attract more tourists to our shops, and feel compelled to invent electricity for street lights so we can hang flowering baskets." Yep, horticulture can be a catalyst for positive change, and that's why America In Bloom (AIB) was founded. The program evolved from a post-WWII effort in France to reestablish a sense of normalcy, then found fertile ground in the United Kingdom, and Canada, with the U.S. version founded in 2001. [More history Patrick Bone's blog] On its surface, AIB's national competition appears to be simply a horticulture program aimed at beautifying towns and cities around the country, and it tackles that job admirably. But the deeper benefits for those who embrace the challenge can lead to an economic boost for ailing commercial districts and the local hospitality industry, and heightened community pride. Participants discover that their efforts help build bonds between neighbors, businesses, and civic leader, provide educational opportunities for school-age children, and enhance their community's quality of life. Shawna Coronado [www.shawnacoronado.com], blogger and author of Gardening Nude, a guide for green living, got involved in an AIB program in Warrenville, IL, and gushes about the competition's benefits. "AIB is an organization I have been involved with for many years in my community. It has done SO MUCH GOOD for the town I live in," Shawna told me in a recent on-line interview. Approximately 100 volunteers in Warrenville took on projects in the downtown district installing container gardens and rain barrels, undertaking a wetland restoration, and putting some shine on local elementary schools. "It is much, much more than a ‘contest' and is more about helping improve communities around the nation." Warrenville kids got their hands dirty, had some fun, and beautified their school. Regardless of the size of your community (small towns aren't pitted against booming big cities) it really doesn't take much to get started. Visit the America In Bloom website, click on The Contest tab and check out the Register Now! link. There's a fee involved, often happily paid for by a local service club or business. Completed streetscape enhancement -- Warrenville IL AIB has a slew of customizable presentations, logos, banners, press releases, and more in their Community Action Kit, and their 218-page Ten Years of Best Ideas book will prime your creative juices with examples from other communities. Once your efforts have borne fruit, judges will come for a two-day visit, evaluating your hard work and helping with additional suggestions for improvements, if needed. The annual awards are announced in October at a symposium and banquet. There's even a video contest at YouTube that helps spread the word about all the enthusiastic folks who have undertaken projects. Take three minutes to watch Coshocton, Ohio's video and you'll have all the inspiration you need to start some buzz where you live. With the still-sagging economy and ailing communities looking for a salve, America In Bloom might be the perfect prescription for your neighborhood or town. Even better, you'll be able to share your love of horticulture with your community and find a good excuse for taking down those whale oil-soaked torches currently illuminating your streets. You don't wanna scorch the petals on your baskets of Proven Winners Calibrachoa ‘Superbells© Lovely Lavender', do you? View the discussion thread.