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Friday, November 12, 2021

Revisiting Empty Common Community Garden

 "We have a Sichuan Pepper Tree. Have you ever tasted one? It makes your mouth go numb." Lileng, my tour guide to  the Empty Common Community Garden picked off a tiny pepper and handed it to me. Once you bite down on the seed it releases a citrusy flavor and gradually a slight, pleasant numbness to your lips and mouth.  

The Sichuan Pepper Tree

This was my second visit to this garden located in Cambridge, England. On my first visit 4 years ago there weren't any gardeners around so this time I was happy to find several gardeners present. They were working on building a hut where gardeners could meet protected from the rain and cold. Charlotte, Lileng and Callum were anchoring the sill to the concrete block foundation. When I inquired about funding for the hut Charlotte told me, "We got grants from Cambridge City Council, The National Lottery via Transition Network, we are a part of Transition Cambridge and the Co-op Community Fund which the co-op shops donate to local causes."

Lileng, Callum and Charlotte

The garden has matured a bit since my last visit. It was started in 2013, so some of the trees are maturing and the perennial plantings are becoming well established. An herb spiral is one of the focal points of the garden and spot to fly the Earth flag.

The plantings surrounding a semicircular log seating area are filling in nicely. Even though I visited after the peak growing season it was a bright sunny day and the beauty in the garden was everywhere.

The plots are all communal and the group decides what to plant and the harvest is also shared and sometimes poached by night visitors including muntjac deer that stop by in the evening to browse. Other pests are also a presence and Lieng pointed out netting and plastic rings used around the Pak Choi to deter flea beetles and snails. 

The garden is located at the edge of an allotment garden. Allotments are found in England and other places in Europe and serve as remote backyards for urban dwellers. They are usually rented or sometimes purchased from the municipality. The Allotment gardens are much different from community gardens like this one where everyone shares the work and harvest of the whole garden. When I asked garden leader Charlotte if the gardeners paid rent or fee she told me, "There is no fee. People tend to buy things we need as they come up, some give money occasionally and one person gives us money monthly by direct debit. "

This quarter acre garden has 15 active members and an email list of about 80 people who are interested in the garden or support what the gardeners are doing. Much like community gardens everywhere non- gardening groups use the garden space. Others that regularly use the Empty Common garden include a a Tai Chi group, a poetry group and a group called Woodcraft Folk.

There are a few existing structures in the garden including a shed, hoop house and composting toilet which I made use of during my visit. A lot of the materials used in the garden are found or recycled. Everything from the leaves and organic matter which is turned into compost, to sticks and twigs used for supports on a bean trellis to some of the materials being used in building the new meeting hut that were salvaged from a temporary structure that was dismantled.

This garden is a wonderful example of all that a community garden can be.  A common ground for people to meet and share ideas and share the effort of improving the land we inhabit. The gardeners use of permaculture techniques makes sure there is habitat for creatures both large and small while providing food for the gardener's bodies and souls.

More information about Empty Common  Community Garden can be found on their blog 


Tuesday, February 2, 2021


I visited the Olivet Heavenly Harvest Garden in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic on a bright sunny day in June 2020.  Punctuating  the lively socially distanced conversations taking place was the chop chop sound of ice choppers and spades being used to reduce the size of the compostable material to help speed up the composting process. The raised beds were lush with all types of vegetables, most of which was destined for distribution to  local food pantries. This was a necessary change made by the gardeners to safely garden in the time of the pandemic. In 2020, 1650 pounds of vegetables were donated to pantries run by a local Methodist Church, Community Health Action of Staten Island, El Centro, the Refrigerator, The Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary and a soup kitchen at Project Hospitality. This list only highlights the number of people who are food insecure.

In a normal season, produce is  given away each Saturday to people in the community. The gardeners roll out a covered produce stand built by volunteers recruited by Ralph, a young gardener, as his Eagle Scout project. The gardeners don't have to advertise their giveaways. With just word of mouth in the neighborhood, the vegetables are often all given away before the 10 am to 1 pm hours are over. They have regular Saturday visitors including one woman who loves green tomatoes and would always request them. In addition to tomatoes they grew garlic, okra, bok choy, collard greens, lettuce, beans and cucumbers.

Having visited community gardens throughout the US as well as in England and Sweden, I've seen many types of community gardens. The Olivet Heavenly Harvest Garden inspired me more than any other. There is a very active multi-generational group of gardeners here. Many of them are cancer survivors. They are all supportive of each other’s circumstances but from what I saw there were no limits on the work or activities going on. 

This winter, when I visited a small group of three of the most active gardeners, Kelly, John and Mike, they rattled off all of the types of cancers represented in their group; colon, liver, prostate, ovarian, breast and skin cancers. They sometimes would see each other at doctor's offices. As Mike told me,"We are good for 6 months until our semi annual checkups" In between doctor visits they spend their time creating an amazing garden.

They have a unique way of organizing the garden. The plots are "rented " to local people who can afford it for $100. The core group of gardeners tend the plots for the renters who will get a head of lettuce or a tomato or two from time to time but the largest share of the produce is donated. This coming season they plan to grow 2000 pounds of produce by utilizing a space to grow onions and potatoes down the block in the backyard of the house used by the minister. 

The garden is located on the grounds of Olivet Presbyterian Church on Staten Island. In highly developed cities like New York, very little municipal land is available for planting community gardens, so land owned by churches, mosques or synagogues is being used more and more often. This is a perfect example of that trend. 

The unique characteristics of the space surrounding the church were taken into consideration in the layout of the garden’s plantings and activities. A retaining wall was used for cascading cucumber vines to make use of vertical spaces. Dotting the garden are repurposed pop up awnings minus the shade covering being used as trellises for climbing pole beans. The vegetables are grown within a fenced in area but the gardeners neatly tend the landscaping outside the fence with flowering plantings. One area surrounding the church steps is lovingly tended by Kelly as a Memorial Garden. The garden is also used as a location for plant and tree giveaways sponsored by city agencies and others.

They spend a bunch of time processing food scraps to be worked into the composting systems they have set up. The chopped up food scraps are composted into the only soil amendment they use on the vegetable plots. In fact they have a bin set up outside the garden gates to accept food scraps 24 hours a day. On the day I visited they were meeting to discuss accepting more food scraps from other collecting sites. The city of New York has unfortunately cut the municipal composting budget by 90%. Community gardeners and other volunteers are pitching in to do the work that should be done by city agencies. The gardeners did not seem to care about budget cuts although they mentioned that donations and volunteers are always welcome. As John told me, "Here it is about us and every year we make the garden a little better"

Monday, December 2, 2019

Community Building

In the course of a Thanksgiving Day conversation with my cousin, the subject of Rudy Giuliani came up. These days he is very much in the news as a key figure in the Donald Trump impeachment inquiry. People who are familiar with the happenings in the late 1990's in the community gardening world know Mr. Giuliani in a much different context, so I recounted this story to my cousin.

At Giuliani's second inauguration on January 1, 1997, protesters unfurled a banner protesting the loss of a community garden. He made light of it in his remarks as the protesters were hauled away but afterward sought to punish the protesters by attempting to get rid of as many community gardens as he could. Over the course of the next year, community garden properties on city owned land were placed into an auction of vacant properties. These community gardens were far from vacant and no distinction was made between a thriving, active garden and a fallow, inactive one. Approximately 120 gardens were scheduled to be auctioned in May, 1999.

This group of gardens ended up being purchased and preserved as community gardens by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the New York Restoration Project (NYRP). Giuliani's vendetta had the unexpected (by him) effect of galvanizing the community gardeners to protest and organize to save the gardens. In fact, the notoriety of a possible loss of 120 community gardens in NYC at one time, became worldwide news with articles appearing in the New York Times, the Washington Post and even European newspapers. Had he sold off the gardens one by one, the critical mass of activist community gardeners affected by this maneuver would not have been formed.

All of a sudden what was a "fringe" movement was now known by the general public. People were now aware what community gardens were and how beneficial they were to the communities where they were located. This helped TPL and NYRP to fundraise over $5.3 million for the purchase of the garden properties. My cheeky comment to my cousin was that Rudy Giuliani deserves a reward from the community gardeners for popularizing community gardening so they no longer had to explain what a community garden was when they mentioned to someone that they are a community gardener.

At the time there were many other truly vacant lots that could have been auctioned and helped the city toward the stated goal of shrinking government. That $5.3 million could have supported programs in the community gardens and the community gardener's efforts. This time of antagonism between the city government and it's community gardening citizens did not have to create a climate of mistrust that still lingers even though subsequent Mayors Bloomberg and DiBlasio were more supportive.

The political outlook that conflates Socialism with Communism with Community with Community Gardens is mistaken. Community Gardeners for the most part are not  Communists or Socialists or Democratic Socialists. They are people who are doing something good for the community and for themselves. Although a famous Democratic Socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a community garden plot in a garden in the Bronx.

Community Gardens can be looked at as a microcosm of the larger society. Now I might add that community gardens and programs that support composting, job creation and healthy living using community gardens as the staging area for all these to happen sounds a lot like the platform of the Democratic Socialists. But the community gardeners don't call it that. In Cleveland, a group called Rid-All is tackling the problems of inequality and poor health in the community. They call it building community. There are other examples of community building groups like Rid-All in New York City, Detroit, Philadelphia and other cities.

When asked about community gardeners protesting the loss of their garden, Rudy Giuliani's reply was "Welcome to the era after communism". Yes, welcome to the era of community building.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Soil Not Dirt

Recently I attended the 3rd Annual Urban Soils Symposium. Scientists are looking at urban soils as a distinct field of study that has nomenclature and characteristics different from soil science in general. I have written blog posts about soils in urban gardens outlining the awareness urban gardeners must have about the soil in their gardens. The presenters at the symposium and the questions and comments from attendees were often targeted to the urban soil issues of heavy metal contamination and what could be done. The blog post linked above gives detail about precautions to be taken. As with many issues when you get 2 or more experts discussing a topic you will have at least as many opinions as discussants. In this case the opinions ranged from - there is nothing you can do to outlining precautions that have been recommended by many scientists. The point is that there is more research to be done and that we don't have all of the answers.

Soil, water, seeds and sunlight are the essential ingredients for growing anything. Growing plants in urban areas maybe have a more difficult time with all of these factors but gardeners have always grown lush gardens in urban areas. The point for me is that we can't look at any of these factors in a vacuum. It doesn't help to look at these factors as a chicken or egg question - what comes first? It doesn't really matter what comes first if you see them all as interrelated and interdependent on each other. We can plant a seed in the soil, water the seed and let the sunshine do the job of providing the light and heat the seed requires to grow. The problems arise when one of the factors is out of balance. Too much rain, not enough rain, too much or not enough sunshine or non-viable seed are easily understandable problems usually with simple fix.

The issues with soils are much more complex and often not easily remedied. Commercial agriculture's quick fix is to just add 3 nutrients Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) to soil to grow crops. This ignores the fact that healthy soil is a living thing. Besides NPK, soils contain many micronutrients, sand, gravel, loam and living organisms both micro-organisms and larger insects. Unfortunately soils also contain poisons such as pesticides and herbicides that usually throw off the natural life in the soil. Urban soils have human made materials that make these soils unique. The important thing to remember is that we have to pay attention to our soils and be caretakers of the soil.

Community Gardeners might just consider Soil as another member of the garden community. The Soil doesn't have a voice although we tend to pay attention to the Soil only when there is a problem. A better way is to cultivate a relationship with the Soil. Give the soil compost to help it replenish its nutrients. Plant things that encourage insects, pollinators and mycelium growth to encourage the health of the soil. It is a Native American custom to give gifts back to the earth as thanks whenever something is taken from it. We should all be adopting this practice. We have to stop treating our soil like dirt.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Honeybees and Community Gardens

Community Gardeners have kept honeybees in their gardens for many years. As gardens mature and gardeners focus on sustainability and how community gardens impact the environment more community gardeners are becoming beekeepers or inviting beekeepers to set up hives in the gardens.
Beekeeping in NYC and other cities has increased tremendously a cities have created urban agriculture policies that include beekeeping. Some cities like NYC have rescinded laws that made keeping honeybees illegal. In NYC, honeybees were classified as 'venomous pests".

I've been beekeeping on and off for about 25 years. Initially as a volunteer beekeeper at Wave Hill in the Bronx, for many years helping other beekeepers (and learning from them), maintaining hives at gardens run by my former employer and for about the last 6 years keeping hives at locations around Staten Island. I learn something new about honeybees and beekeeping almost everyday. Many people I speak with are fascinated by honeybees and will often grill me about misconceptions they have about bees.

"Are they aggressive? Do they sting?"

No they are not aggressive. Honeybees are searching for pollen and nectar from flowers and you are not a flower. They will sting but you have to be threatening to them in some way. Often when someone is stung it is a yellow jacket, wasp or hornet that is the culprit so don't be so quick to blame a honeybee. There are 3500 species of bees in the United States and 20,000 throughout the world. The vast majority of bee species are solitary bees, often they nest in the soil or in cavities in trees,  shrubs and even our homes.

Bees have evolved along with the plants they pollinate. A variety of bee species are responsible for pollinating one third of our food crops. Bees also contribute to biodiversity by cross pollinating native species. There are many benefits that bee species provide to various ecosystems.  The honeybee is the only species that are managed by humans to pollinate food crops and to collect honey and other hive products.

"Is there really only one queen? Why don't they have more than one queen?"

Yes there is only one queen per hive. She lays all of the eggs that eventually populate the hive after the larvae are fed by the female worker bees. The male drones sole role in the colony is to impregnate a virgin queen. The social structure of the hive and their defenses are well served by having a solitary queen. All of the bees in the hive carry the scent of the pheromones of the queen on their bodies. The guard bees defend the hive from any invaders that don't have the queen's pheromones.

Why are honeybees having a hard time surviving?

There are many factors. Climate change often disrupts the hive with severe weather such as extreme heat, extreme cold and intense storms. Pesticide use, in particular Neonicotinoid pesticides weaken or kill hives. Habitat loss where honeybee forage sites are developed put stress on the colony. Hive pests which range from the tiny varroa mite to the giant bear.

"What can I do to help?"

My favorite question. As individuals we can help counteract the factors that are contributing to hive loss. First, don't use pesticides or herbicides. As bees forage for pollen and nectar they will come in contact with the residue of spraying. These small amounts of herbicides or pesticides can weaken and eventually kill bees and bee colonies. Second plant flowers, trees and shrubs that bees will use as food sources like some of the plants in the above list. If you don't have a space to plant, you can join a community garden, volunteer with a local herb society or with a local parks department or donate to or join a group whose mission is to help pollinator species.

Third, buy local honey and hive products. You will be getting something sweet while supporting local beekeepers efforts to help the bees survive.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Joe Holzka Garden and the Humus Film Festival

Last Fall I met Sara, a young woman from Madrid, Spain, who was visiting New York and asked me to show her a few of the Lower East side gardens. We met, walked around the neighborhood and visited gardens that were open and chatted about community gardening in New York and in Madrid. Sara is a leader of a community garden in Madrid, Esta es una Plaza .  We talked about another organization in Madrid, La Casa Encendida that was sponsoring The Humus Film Festival of short videos about community gardens along with the Humus Revolution, a 3 day fun event about community gardens.

Now I realized that she also had an ulterior motive, to ask me to submit a short video about a community garden to the festival. I agreed. I thought it would be a fun project. But the winter came and I wouldn't be able to get any interesting footage in the winter. I did have some nice photos of the Joe Holzka Garden and when I looked through them I realized they could tell a story about the garden.

I've written about this garden before. It is close to my home and I'm an honorary member. I led a  project to build a shade structure/ rainwater harvester. I also worked on a expansion of the garden which added raised beds that would be used to grow produce for a local food pantry. Recently I helped the gardeners rebuild some of the raised beds that needed replacement.

We also organized a fun event to celebrate the release of a new book, Eat Less Water by Florencia Ramirez. Florencia visited the garden with me a few years ago and was so impressed by the garden that she mentioned the visit in the book. We read an excerpt from the book and shared food prepared by the gardeners, Kelly Morris and Aralis Munoz. It was easy for me to tell a story about the Joe Holzka Garden.

Thankfully there are computer programs that can take still photos and pan and zoom through the picture creating something called the Ken Burns Effect. My phone has a setting on the camera called Live Photos which captures several seconds of video when I take a still photo. So I made a movie using these photos with help from my son and my wife. It wasn't action packed, did not have dialogue but hopefully will show the world this wonderful garden. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Community Garden in Cambridge, England

Community Gardens exist is some form in many places around the world. They may look different in Cuba than in Mexico than in Sweden. Part of the beauty of community gardens are the cultural influences that manifest in the way they look or are organized.

I recently had the opportunity to see a community garden in Cambridge, England. I was not able to connect with any of the gardeners as I visited on a Sunday morning when no one was around. The garden was open which right there might be an unrecognizable feature to a New York City community gardener. I was only visiting Cambridge for a short time so I couldn't visit again or arrange to meet a gardener.

Cambridge is a university town. Basically the university is surrounded by and intermingled with the town. There is a Botanical Garden that is affiliated with the University. Just south of the Botanical Garden are an Allotment Garden and the Empty Common Community Garden which I visited. Allotments have been a popular type of opportunity for city dwellers to be able to garden somewhere close to the city. In some cases they look like backyards. There is a rental fee or in the case of a allotment I visited in Malmo, Sweden in 2005, the plots are owned and can be sold much like any other home or property. The Cambridge Allotments are rented on a yearly basis.

The interesting thing to me was that the Allotments and the community garden in this case were adjacent to each other. There wasn't a very clear delineation between the allotment and the community garden. The garden did have some plots , a greenhouse and a number of common areas.  The common areas are what seemed to distinguish the garden from the allotment. The seating areas were made from repurposed logs and there were other fun and interesting features to the garden, I tried to capture these details in some of the photos. The land for both is owned by the City Council but it is not clear to me what the procedure is to join either one. Perhaps I will learn that on a future visit. 

It seems analogous to me to the difference between Community Gardens and Urban Agriculture projects in New York and other American cities. An Allotment or Urban Agriculture project are individually controlled while the Community Gardens are, well...