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Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Good is Community Gardening?

What Good is Community Greening is an often cited and quoted article written by David Malakoff for the ACGA Community Greening Review in 1995. In fact it was one of the first in depth articles that looked at the benefits of community gardening and greening. I was part of the discussions by the ACGA Board of Directors at the time on whether to use the word "Gardening" or "Greening". While it may matter to some who are looking for the most accurate word to describe what folks are doing, this blog is named Community Gardening hence the title of this post. Maybe we will look at the gardening-greening debate another time.

Over the course of my work over the past few weeks, I have supervised the building of 2 rainwater harvesting structures in 2 gardens in the Bronx. How that happened and several small occurrences gave several uncommon answers to the question " What good is community gardening?"

The first installation was at the Jacquline Denise Davis Garden (JDD), a garden that I have mentioned in previous posts. This garden is one of the host gardens for the GrowNYC LearnIt Grow It Eat It Program a program I helped create that connects high school students to community gardens. The students and the community gardeners were using a shade structure with a collapsing roof to get shelter from the rain and sun. We had a design for a new structure from a landscape architecture graduate student. With that in hand the Learn It Grow It Eat It program, and two neighborhood organizations, the Morrisania Revitalization Corp. and BASICS Inc. allocated the funds for the materials. Clients from BASICS Inc. helped with the demolition of the existing structure and building the new one. A crew from the Sustainable South Bronx Best Academy assisted in the construction and the rainwater harvesting installation. Learn It Grow It Eat It student interns helped with site preparation.

This community garden was a catalyst for neighborhood organizations to work together, teenagers and adults to be part of a building process and learn construction skills in a hands on project. The men from BASICS Inc. regardless of whatever hardships they have endured in their lives were happy to be involved in something constructive. The Best crew learned some new skills and were able to see a project through to completion.

Two very interesting things happened with members of the Best Crew. One woman kept saying she was afraid of heights and was not going on the roof to attach the roofing. With some encouragement from her crew members and courage on her own part she made it onto the roof and took part in that process. When we completed the project she was interviewed by a film crew who she told several times about her accomplishment.
One of the last things we do in a Rainwater Harvesting installation is to secure the tank with rope or wire to eyebolts to make sure it doesn't tip over or shift in the wind. I usually ask if any boy scouts or girl scouts are in the crew that might know how to tie knots. I handed a 100 foot long high strength rope to several people and went off to check on the rest of the crew. When I came back they had fashioned a very elaborate but very secure tie-down. The crew member who was leading the tie-down crew had been a paratrooper and learned knots for securing equipment and supplies that had to be lowered or raised into a helicopter. He was able to use his skills in a community garden.

The Neighborhood Advisory Committee Garden was the second garden to receive a Rainwater Harvesting structure. This garden is one of the Bronx Land Trust gardens and the land trust was able to raise the funds for the materials. One of the gardeners and a crew from the Green Apple Corps assisted with the installation. The Green Apple Corps members attended top high schools and colleges in the city and elsewhere and are learning environmental restoration, green roof and water management skills. Most of them have no construction skills but were able to master the use of basic power tools and carpentry techniques.

When the benefits of community gardens are discussed growing food, habitat for wildlife and neighborhood beautification are most often mentioned. Providing hands on opportunities for job training or rehabilitation programs are rarely mentioned. I don't think anyone has ever mentioned that a community garden provided an opportunity for a former paratrooper to utilize his skills or a young woman to conquer her fear of heights. To me these moments give us a glimpse into What Good is Community Gardening.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Garden Membership - Open to All?

How do you give everyone an equal opportunity to be a member of a community garden? Sounds like it should be simple but there are complicating factors. Theoretically it might make sense to start over each year with a lottery of some kind to assign plots. But if you think about what goes into making a community garden successful a lottery would not make any sense at all.
Community Gardens need some degree of continuity for the group to gain strength and cohesiveness and to develop social systems for setting rules and making decisions. To make a comparison with healthy soil, it takes many years to create a healthy soil by adding compost, using cover crops and allowing beneficial organisms to build up in the soil. A garden group needs people with various skills, time on their hands and the dedication to making the group successful. Usually the first stab at setting garden rules needs a lot of tweaking as the rules are tested by real world situations. The rules may be too strict for all but the most dedicated members who have lots of time on their hands or they may be too ambiguous where people can interpret the rule in several ways and each could be technically right.

Sometimes a garden member is very good at fixing or repairing tools, fences or garden structures out of found objects. Some gardeners are expert gardeners or horticulturists and provide the answers to gardening related questions. Other gardeners are astute at getting municipal services or donations from businesses. It would be counterproductive to the social sustainability of a community garden to remove members with these assets that are so necessary. But maybe the new people would have similar or even better skills. That is possible but a successful group has a certain chemistry that may take years to develop. To try to recreate this chemistry each year would be very difficult or I would say nearly impossible. To make another soil analogy, if you were to remove the soil from a garden and bring in new soil each year it would not be a productive soil or use of time.

Recently this question of a garden lottery came up in a listserv discussion. A garden that was on property owned by a college was being built on and moved to a smaller location. The gardeners fought the move but the college prevailed. The plots in the new garden the gardeners were told would have to be filled by an annual lottery to give everyone (particularly students) a chance at a space in the garden. The college may have seen this as an opportunity to get rid of some of the most vocal gardeners but even if their intent was to be egalitarian it was still misguided for the reasons I mentioned above.

The discussion did bring up some interesting ideas; One gardener wrote about creating an apprenticeship level of membership as a way to determine those most interested,

" In recent years there has been such an explosion of interest in gardening, so we instituted an apprentice system to be able to make space in our gardening community, given the limits of our physical space. This season we have about 15-20 apprentices. Apprentice members are asked to fulfill membership requirements (open hour shifts, 4 meetings, and 4 workday/events) for a season after which they are placed on a waiting list for a plot. This system is only two years old, but so far, every apprentice who has fulfilled their requirements received their own plot in the following season. During their apprentice year, apprentices learn how the garden works and are involved in maintaining our common ornamental beds, our welcome gardens and our community herb garden. There is also a vegetable plot set aside for apprentice gardeners to work on, with some guidance from an experienced member.

Our members are very active and our garden is pretty highly-functioning and I'm not sure how true that would be if there was an almost complete annual turnover and a lottery system. I don't think a lottery as described here would allow for any sense of continuity or growth of a garden community. I do think it is important to create a meaningful role for interested newcomers. "

Another gardener talked about a similar system where new members tend communal plots and the most committed are then offered an individual plot when one is available,

" ...we take all comers. We're in our third year of having community plots and it seems to work pretty well. We have 26 individual beds and then 3 (growing to 4) supersized beds that are community plots. New members generally start out with the community plots and get to do as much or as little work as they want. They can also work on our landscaping/non-edible areas. It becomes clear pretty soon who is committed to the garden and who just wants to play in the dirt a bit. Those who are clearly committed get offered an individual plot (or a share) when one opens up, and with our newly transient population, beds have been opening up annually. We also have some large pots by some beds and sometimes they are used by those without their own beds. Those working the communal beds are seen as of equal status as everyone else, and it is important that some old-timers stick around because they get to teach the newbies what they know."

These are good suggestions from garden groups that have been in existence for a number of years and have dealt with the difficult decisions. While to an outsider it might make sense to give everyone a chance at a garden plot through a lottery, the reality is that it is not as clear cut as that. At the beginning of the season when a lottery would be held many people may sign up out of curiosity but then find that they don't have the time or interest to be a community gardener. This happens with new member who join a garden from a waiting list or directly even without a lottery. Yes there are instances where a garden that is run by a small group or even a single individual may not be open to new members (a subject for another post). But in most community gardens run democratically or by consensus, if someone is truly committed to community gardening the group will quickly recognize that and welcome that individual.