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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Should I Join a Community Garden?

As the temperature here in New York City has finally warmed above the freezing mark, we inevitably begin to long for even warmer temperatures and the ability to get out into the garden. It is also a time when folks begin to think about finding a community garden to join or to start one. In some of my previous posts you may have read about the many benefits attributed to community gardens. There are social benefits of meeting your neighbors, interacting with people of different cultures, of being a member of a supportive group, of feeling good about something you are doing. There are environmental benefits like restoring ruined land, providing habitat for insects and birds, combating climate change, preserving biodiversity and managing storm water. There are community benefits of cleaning up the neighborhood, increasing property values and providing a safe environment for children and seniors. There are the personal health benefits of eating fresh, local, organic, pesticide free produce, of exercise and of positive impacts on mental health. I am probably leaving out a few.

All of these things do not mysteriously grow out of a plot of vacant land. They all take time and work by a group of people to create these benefits. So one should not expect to walk into a community garden, have the sun shine on you and be blessed with all of the benefits mentioned above.

A more likely scenario is that you might be greeted warmly but warily by a community gardener. You will have to prove yourself and gain the trust of others. You will be faced with a set of rules that usually contain the words don't and can't. You will have to do physical work that might leave you sore and achy for days afterward. You may face disappointment at being given a plot that is in the shade or is much smaller than you expected. You may also be told that you are joining as a provisional or apprentice member and you will have to spend a year or more working on common areas to prove yourself before being given a plot of one's own. You may have to sit through endless meetings to make simple decisions. Your garden may be threatened by the municipal government or a developer wishing to use the land for other purposes. You may have your plants, vegetables of flowers damaged or stolen by pests both by humans and other species.

Why should I join a community garden? Is it worth it?

Of course you know I think it is.

What do you think?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Community Gardening and the Law

Community Gardeners do not own the land they garden. Community Gardens have always offered access to land to grow food and community on land that is owned by a municipal entity or a private landowner. The exception are Land Trust community gardens but they are a small percentage of the total of community gardens. Land tenure has always been an issue and many of the posts I have written have been about land issues. There is a movement to use urban lands for commercial urban agricultural projects that threatens to monopolize land and funds that might otherwise be used for community gardens. Community Gardeners have to be continually vigilant in monitoring city government attempts to place limitations on community gardening efforts both on a citywide scale and in terms of individual projects. Many cities either have enacted laws or policies concerning urban agriculture and community gardening. Some have given community gardening legitimacy and protections while some have placed limits on where community gardens can be and how they operate. The most supportive policies saw a great deal of lobbying and input from community gardeners.

A couple of events in New York City over the past 3 weeks have highlighted the ongoing struggle that community gardeners face to keep access to the land they do not own. At 5 am on Saturday, Dec 28, 2013 the Boardwalk Community Garden in Coney Island, Brooklyn was bulldozed by iStar Development who plans to develop a amphitheater on the site. The Boardwalk Garden had spent the past 14 months recovering from Superstorm Sandy. The Atlantic Ocean covered the garden with at least 6 feet of salt water destroying much of the garden.

Boardwalk Garden after Sandy 
This parcel covered by the garden is part of a larger redevelopment effort in the area which has progressed in fits and starts and has been a threat to this community garden and others for years. This project has been the darling of now former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and the timing of the bulldozers just 3 days before he was to leave office could not be coincidental. The developers may not receive the same support from new  Brooklyn and NYC elected officials. The community gardeners and their advocates are in the process of planning and filing a lawsuit claiming that the community gardens land was mapped parkland. In New York State taking of parkland or "alienation of parkland" without the approval of the state legislature is not allowed. There is no record of this approval and the parkland designation will have to be verified but the courts will probably have to decide this case.

photo by Hubert J. Steed

Coincidently just 10 days after the bulldozing on January 7, 2014, a judge ruled that NYU could not take land in Manhattan currently being used as small parks and a community garden for part of the university's expansion efforts. In this case the land was mapped as roadway as part of a failed effort by Robert Moses to develop an expressway through lower Manhattan that was first proposed in 1941, small parts were built but funds for the completion were never allocated and the project stopped for good in 1971. These parcels in question were assembled as approach roads but as the expressway project languished they became neighborhood parks and the community garden. One parcel became a living art installation called 'Time Landscape' by artist Alan Sonfist which recreates the landscape on the site before European settlement. Adjacent to the 'Time Landscape', The LaGuardia Corner Garden has been on the site since 1981. It is a relatively small but vibrant community garden. The garden is right next to a supermarket which makes it a great location for those of us who like to photograph such juxtapositions. The community garden group along with other community groups have been fighting the NYU plan for many years. The timing of the judges ruling could not have been better for the Boardwalk Garden although both cases have well funded opponents and the appeals process may go on for years. Fortunately the Laguardia Corner Garden was not bulldozed. The Boardwalk Garden was not so fortunate.

The struggle that community gardeners face in dealing with laws and policies continues. It doesn't seem that there will be a time when no community gardens will face what the Boardwalk Garden and the LaGuardia Corner Garden have faced. There will always be some community garden in some city that is threatened by development. Community gardeners will have to remain vigilant and to know the laws of their city and state to insure that their community gardens will remain and flourish.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist

What do Community Gardening, Kickstarter and Permaculture have in common? In the case of a Kickstarter campaign by Michael Judd to self publish a book, Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist, I was able to combine a few of my somewhat related interests. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and IOBY (In Our Back Yard) that started locally in New York and as of today has project funded in 61 cities, are crowdfunding websites to support anyone whose idea is accepted by these websites. Someone has an idea, creates a campaign by offering perks related to the idea, sets a dollar goal and hopes enough people will support the project to make it a reality. The campaigns can be in the arts, social or technological as well as other fields. I usually search the tech campaigns looking for the latest cool gadget that I may or may not need.

I was very intrigued by the title of this book and the chapters which included Rainwater Harvesting: Swales and Rain Gardens, Earthen Ovens and Uncommon Fruits. All of these techniques discussed within the concept of Permaculture made it seem like a book I would enjoy and use and a worthwhile project to support. 

I was first introduced to Permaculture about 35 years ago when I read Permaculture One and Permaculture Two by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. These books gave practical ideas and advice how to design a space using nature as a guide, not wasting anything and utilizing energy and materials that are available on site. While the books focused on plots of land larger than most community gardens (5+ acres) many if not all of the ideas and concepts can be adapted to smaller scale. Back then the authors were giving us a roadmap to sustainable design and living. There are practitioners of Permaculture throughout the world and many are using the techniques on a small scale in Urban areas. Community Gardeners can use many techniques in their quest for sustainability.

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist is easy to read with clear photos and illustrations. Armed with this book and some ability at gardening and landscaping one could utilize the chapters in this book in your own community garden or backyard.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on Uncommon Fruits. I have planted hardy kiwis in my own backyard and am hopeful that this summer will bring our first fruit harvest. The fruits are small and delicious, very different from the supermarket fuzzy kiwis. It is also a species that has male and female plants and I was sure to order both when I planted mine. Paw Paw is another unusual fruit tree that is native to the US that  I want to plant in community gardens. The fruit is not available commercially but is about the size of a small mango and has a flavor somewhat like bananas. Mulberries are also included in this chapter and while I enjoy eating them when they are ripe, the trees are very messy and unruly so I wouldn't recommend them as much for community gardens.

Now that my project to build a chicken cage in my backyard is completed, I can start planning the pizza oven that my wife has wanted for awhile. The chapter on Earthen Ovens will be very useful to us to decide how to build our backyard oven.

As we in the Northern Hemisphere spend the winter planning our gardens, ordering seeds and deciding on projects for spring and summer, this book would be a great addition to our bookshelves. It is a book that is fun to read as well as having useful how to information. Most community gardeners that are looking for ways to make their gardens sustainable will find at least one chapter in this book to help toward that goal.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Things I've Seen

It has been 5 months since my last post. I have been very busy community gardening which left little time or energy for blogging. To catch up I thought I would share photos and a little text to show you what I have seen and some of what I have been doing since my last post.

This was a banner year for community gardening in New York City. It was odd for community gardeners long used to little support from mayors and the powerful in the city to find that the city was now encouraging community gardening and putting city tax dollars into the effort.

 This was done under the Mayor's Obesity Task Force and community gardening is one of many tactics being used to combat obesity and by extension try to lessen incidence of chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

 Neighborhood groups are creating new community gardens with material and technical support from the city. Corporate groups are pitching in with volunteer labor and funds for materials.

Some existing community gardens were devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Many people stepped up to help. I was involved in several of these projects. The transformations were amazing and a tribute to the hard work of community gardeners and the tremendous support they received.

Many community gardens continue to be in the forefront of creating a sustainable city, from Rainwater Harvesting to designing and building their gardens to attract pollinators.

Even after many years in community gardens I am still surprised at times at the things I see. Not just the interesting sculptures and the beauty of the gardens but how the community gardeners join together to transform unwanted or unused spaces into these amazing community gardens.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vertical Gardening 2013 Update

The long term experiment with  Grow Bags for vertical planting continues. Last year was not very successful as we had a drought during the hot dry summer months and it was difficult to keep up with watering. Some of the Grow Bags deteriorated and had to be replaced. Two to three years is the most that can be expected from the planter bags but since they are easy to make and install they are easily changed when they wear out.
Soaker Hose Irrigation System
This spring I added soaker hoses as an easy as a low water use way to keep the plants from drying out.
The system works very well. As you can see from the photo I snaked the soaker hose around the grow bags so that every bag gets watered. I can turn the system on for 20 minutes in the morning and the bags will not dry out in the heat of the day.
Closeup of Soaker Hoses in Operation
The plants are thriving. I amended the soil with some well cured compost before planting and tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, chard and zucchini are all doing well. I will add some compost soon to give the plants a little boost but I believe the addition of the irrigation system made the grow bags function as I hoped they would.
Showing Vegetables Growing
I also came across another simple option for using some vertical space as shown in the photo below where milk crates are lined with heavy duty felt fabric and make excellent planters.
Milk Crate Planters
Vertical Planting has many proponents and there are many interesting techniques in use. It is a great way to grow things in limited space. Fences and other vertical structures now can serve more than one purpose. I'll keep you posted with my experiment and any other interesting developments I find.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Is There A Community Garden I Can Join?

This is the time of year when I get a lot of phone calls and e-mails from people who want to get involved or get a plot in a community garden.  They call me because my phone number is the only one listed on-line for community gardens in  New York City. If you search for community gardens in New York City on OASISNYC there are no contact names listed but my work phone and e-mail are as the data provider. Someone who is searching for community gardens in NYC solely on line will probably end up contacting me. Maybe that is not the best way to go about finding a community garden to join.

"Garden Beds" College Avenue Community Garden, Bronx, NY
Some community gardens have their own website which will have information about joining, list meeting times and open hours and even have a garden history. If a community garden does have an extensive website that is up to date the group is probably very organized or at least has one very organized member. Much of the business of the garden may be done via the internet like paying dues via PayPal, signing up for assignments on a Google doc or sharing news and information via a Yahoo or Google group or an e-mail list. If this is the case and you are not comfortable with this technology then this may not be the right garden for you.

If someone does call me one of my recommendations is to take a walk around the neighborhood and visit the garden that they are interested in joining. This way they can talk to the community gardeners and get a feel for what the group is like. Just like finding a job or a college, a face to face interview or or a visit goes a long way toward making the right decision.

Can you make a wrong decision? Probably not but I have heard stories about folks who wanted to join a community garden and for one reason or another did not get along with someone in the garden, were not welcomed by one or more of the gardeners or were treated badly by someone in the garden. While these scenarios are rare, they do happen and this is all the more reason to meet the gardeners face to face before joining a community garden. As part of a garden lease or license, most community garden programs stipulate that the garden must be open to all. That may not be the reality.

There is also the matter of garden rules or lack of them to consider. There may be rules that are too stringent for your liking or the rules may be too lenient. Everyone has a different comfort level from anarchy to dictatorship and those governance systems and everything in between can be found in different  community gardens. Look to see if the garden rules are posted somewhere in the garden or ask a gardeners about the garden's rules.

If you want to grow your vegetables but do not have the time or the inclination to help with the common areas, composting, watering or keeping open hours there may be a community garden out there for you but I doubt it. You should expect to be asked to help with the community part of community gardening. If you are not interested in these community chores you may want to rethink your interest in joining a community garden.

For some the idea of being part of a community garden is very appealing. It would be a shame if their ideals were shattered because they did not find the right community garden to join. Then again even if the first garden you join is not the right match, you can always join another garden or start a new garden. Just remember that community gardening is not solely a virtual activity. You will get your hands dirty and develop relationships with your neighbors with whom you may not normally connect. Those are a couple of the personal benefits of being a community gardener.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


We all need inspiration to keep us doing work that is often unappreciated. Last week I received some much needed inspiration from Dr. Vandana Shiva. I have followed Dr. Shiva's work for many years. She has exposed the plight of farmers in India in their struggles with Monsanto's tactics of selling genetically modified (GM) seed and then not allowing the farmers to save the seed for future planting. It has gotten to the point where 250,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide because of this unfair treatment.

Dr. Shiva has written extensively about the failed promise of GM seed, plants, vegetables and fruit. The corporations developing genetic modification promoted this technique as a way to help farmers produce more crops and more nutritious foods. In reality all they have produced are crops that can use more of their pesticides and herbicides. The fact that most of the world has banned or severely limited the sale of GM foods except the US is partly due to Dr. Shiva's work.

I heard Dr. Siva speak at Making Brooklyn Bloom at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She spoke about her non-profit Navdanya that has helped train Indian farmers in organic methods and set up seed banks throughout India. They are also starting school gardens working to introduce the youth in India to a healthy respect for the environment.

The most inspiring words from Dr. Shiva were that we should be thinking about our headprint - how our thinking is having a positive or negative impact on the environment much as our ecological footprint does. She also spoke about our heartprint and handprint - what we feel in our hearts and do with our hands is what has the potential to help create a livable, healthy world.