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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...

Friday, December 8, 2017


Note: I recently received an award from The City Gardens Club for my work as an educator. I'm posting these remarks I made at the award ceremony here because they show the collaborative nature of community gardeners and the individuals and organizations that support community gardens. I've added links where appropriate.

City Gardens Club Remarks,  November 13, 2017

Thank you Susan. I’m proud to be receiving this award as you did several years ago.  Thank you City Gardens Club for this MelvilleAward.

I don't think I would have been able to accomplish what I have without the support of my wife, Kathy. She has been my one-woman support team. If I listed all the ways she has supported me this speech would go on forever.

Thanks to GrowNYC  for employing me all these years and supporting the accomplishments for which I am being rewarded today.

31 years ago I was hired to be the Grow Truck Driver. Support for this position has come almost every year since from the City Gardens Club. Thank you City Gardens Club for that funding. The Grow Truck has been invaluable in getting the materials and supplies - often donated by organizations led by Melville Award honorees, the Green Guerillas led by Steve Frillman and Battery Parks City Parks Conservancy led by Tessa Huxley - to all of the Greening projects at GrowNYC like school gardening projects led by Melville recipients; Alison Godshall, Nate Wight and GrowNYC’s Mike Zamm.
I’ve recently retired as Director of Green Infrastructure at GrowNYC. In all of the projects Gerard and I have worked on, a key component has been educating city residents and youth in particular, about all aspects of Open Space – how to find spaces to grow plants in our city where open space is so scarce, how to grow those plants and all of the benefits we receive as individuals and as a city from those plants.

You might say Gerard Lordahl and I complement each other in the sense of enhancing each other’s work. I can thank Gerard more than anyone for the many successes I’ve had. Particularly because he did things I didn't care much about and I was the nerdy statistics guy that measures and counted things so I could tell you: 
how many community gardens are in NYC  -  600,  
or how much space they encompass  - 32 acres,
or how many community gardeners - 20,000  in all 5 boroughs 
and that there are 200 gardens with rainwater harvesting systems capturing 2 million gallons of rainwater each year.

The last 15 years or so of my career I spent the bulk of my time on storm water management and rainwater harvesting because I felt that rainwater harvesting has an environmental triple bottom line.
It saves water.
It prevents pollution.
It educates the public.

These rainwater systems are educational just by there existence. They provoke conversation and learning particularly in lower income communities and communities of color. This is very important to me to help insure that we have an educated public and that we don't have a Flint Water crisis in our city and that our city has an intelligent plan for dealing with storms like Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria.

We created a Stormwater Management Toolkit that can be found at to give everyone the tools they need to know the issues and do something about it.

I trained hundreds of teens, young adults and homeowners about rainwater systems and how to install them. I also taught many rainwater workshops for GrowNYC, GreenThumb, the Queens Botanical Garden led by Susan Lacerte, a former Melville award recipient and with Mary Leou at Steinhardt NYU, another Melville honoree, and in partnership with other community groups.

I want to point out one partnership in particular, The Brotherhood/ Sister Sol (BHSS), because that partnership highlights the work that we do but also because it gives me hope. At BHSS I worked very closely with teen program leader Nando Rodriguez and the BHSS youth to build 3 rainwater systems in their community. I first met Nando about 20 years ago as one of the youth working on the CommunityGarden Mapping Project. Now he is doing great work with youth in Harlem.

Over the years I have taught elementary school children, teens and adults how to measure, identify, assess and map the street trees and community gardens in NYC in the aforementioned Community Garden Mapping Project and Street Tree Mapping Project.

Gerard and I have both taught the Street Tree Pruner Class to hundred of adults. In fact one of my students, Pam Ito was another Melville honoree.

I am most proud of the Learn It Grow It Eat It program created with my colleague David Saphire. We taught hundreds of Bronx teens where their food comes from, how to grow food and how to be community leaders in their community that has few healthy food choices.

Thanks again to the City Gardens Club, for your generous support that has allowed the Grow Truck to continued to assist community gardens and now GrowNYC’s Governors Island Teaching Garden. The wonderful video you will now see visually captures how GrowNYC staff has transformed an unused space on Governors Island into an outdoor classroom for children and families that allows them to experience first hand all of the aspects of environmental education I've taught and more.

Thank you again to the City Gardens Club for the Melville Award. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Can Urban Farming Save Us from Climate Change?

Growing and eating local produce has many benefits. You know where your produce was grown and what agricultural methods were used. The produce is fresher so the vitamin content and health value is higher and the vegetables can last longer than store bought varieties. A small caveat here: many varieties for sale in grocery stores are selected and grown for their shelf life often at the expense of taste or nutritional content. At the same time, certain varieties or types of vegetables that are grown in community gardens or urban farms are rarely found in grocery stores, so when we eat locally grown produce, we get to enjoy certain vegetables or varieties we wouldn't otherwise: Kohlrabi? Lacinato Kale?

The 'Food Miles' or the transportation costs of shipping produce long distances is avoided with urban agriculture. There has been much debate and some research about how true that is with some research even showing that grocery chains do better with the Food Miles metric than farmers markets .

The local produce grown in community gardens have additional social benefits which add value that is often not calculated. An excellent article describing the Bottoms Up Community Garden in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood in Oakland, CA points out the community organizing power of community gardens. Many of the posts in this blog also point out benefits that are not usually calculated when doing cost/ benefit comparisons of local produce grown in community gardens as compared to produce farmed in a distant location.

It is well established that dense cities can only produce a very small percentage of their food needs within the confines of the city so there has to be a mix of locally grown and trucked in food in our diets. However, a recent article in National Geographic Magazine, September 2017, "A Tiny Country Feeds the World" by Frank Viviano, highlights intensive agriculture in the Netherlands which is about the size of the state of Maryland yet produces the second highest food export value in the world after the USA. Much of this is done using greenhouses and the latest technology to minimize water use and produce higher amounts per acre than other countries. They have created what they call Food Valley where the latest research on agriculture at Wageningen University and Research is combined with entrepreneurship to grow more food and share the technological advances with the world, much the same as the relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley.  It seems that the calculus is constantly changing and improvements in materials and methods used research and technology, I believe, keep shifting the needle toward urban agriculture producing larger percentages of our food using less inputs.

So does Urban Agriculture have the ability to impact climate change? A recent article says no. This is true at the moment but with the technological changes happening at a feverish pace that may change sooner than later. Energy use for transportation, heating and cooling, manufacturing and housing play a big role in greenhouse gas emissions so improvements must be made in those areas as well. The agricultural sector including large and small farms and urban farms will have to help as well. I believe urban farms and community gardens will contribute to slowing down global warming and impacting climate change and in fact lead the way in some cases. The social benefits of community gardening will also be an important piece of the puzzle of reversing climate change.