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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Year in Community Gardening

This is the week when everyone reviews the year that just passed and makes top ten list and best of lists. It would be nearly impossible and possibly unfair to come up with a best of or top ten list of community gardens.

2012 was notable for community gardens for several reasons. This was the year that the policies that have gone into effect over the last several years have been tested and from all the reports have passed with little problems. Maybe not earth shattering news but it is important that these policies prove worthwhile to politicians and city bureaucrats as well as useful for community gardeners.   For community gardens to be sustainable one piece of the puzzle is policies that work - not too restrictive while making the municipality supportive.

Research on urban agriculture and community gardening continues at a brisk pace, most notably this year the Five Borough Farm Project and the Michigan State University Metro Food Innovation Cluster at Detroit  looked at what is happening in New York and Detroit respectively while making proposals for future direction.  It might be better if this research money went directly into community garden programs but if this research leads to even more dollars in the future then it will be money well spent.

Hurricane Sandy was also big news for community gardens in New York City. My blog post on the subject covers the details. Once again community gardens are a microcosm of the our world. Climate change threatens community gardens just as it threatens the earth. Maybe we can find some solutions  to prepare community gardens for future climate change that will work for us all.

This was a great year for me as a presenter. I made presentations about policy, rainwater harvesting and sustainable community gardens. Probably the most fun was doing a presentation about the bicycle powered water pump at the World Maker Faire . So now I am officially a Maker.

As in most years there are positive and negative events that happen over the course of a year. 2012 fits right there with the good, bad and ugly of years. Let's look forward to next year being one that is healthy for community gardening and community gardeners.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sandy and New York City Community Gardens

First of all I must apologize for the amount of time between posts. Maybe it is blogger's block, if there is such a thing but also sometimes life gets in the way of blogging. I do have to wait on line to use the computer. My kids homework trumps dad's use of the computer.

I have been mulling over what to say about Sandy and the community gardens. I live on Staten Island and was directly if only slightly affected by the storm. Some of my fellow Staten Islanders lost their homes and in some cases their lives. The effects of the storm still linger for many. Oddly we had no damage due to Sandy (we lost electricity for 28 hours - short enough to be a novelty and not long enough to cause major inconveniences) but a large cherry tree came down in the Northeaster storm the following week. The tree still had it leaves and the wet snow and a gust of wind took it down. It disconnected our neighbors and our electric and cable lines but only caused minor damage to our garden and none to our house. This 30 inch diameter trunk even fell neatly between 2 beloved rose bushes I had pruned just a week earlier.
Large Cherry Tree,  Front of My Home, Staten Island
Some of the community gardens fared much worse but on the whole most avoided damage from the storm. In fact I know of one garden with solar panels where the gardeners were able to charge their cell phones as they waited up to 2 weeks for the electricity in their apartments to be restored. Chalk one up for sustainability initiatives in community gardens.
Culinary Kids Garden, Far Rockaway, Queens, Debris and Intact Rainwater Harvesting System
In the low lying areas of Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Red Hook and the Lower  East Side, the community gardens were flooded with up to 12 feet of water which brought with it all kinds of debris, sewage and whatever the ocean, river and bay were carrying. Fallen trees also caused damage in these gardens as well as other gardens inland in neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
College Avenue Garden, the Bronx, Downed Trees
The flooded gardens have been advised not to eat anything that was flooded and not to grow anything in inundated soil for at least 60 days. That's not bad considering that the 60 days will fall in November, December and January when little grows in the gardens here. In several gardens that I visited after the storm there were sewage and petroleum smells which tells me that there may be cause for caution growing vegetables this spring in some of these areas.
Debris, Campos Garden, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Like my home some community gardens lost large trees and limbs which caused everything from minor inconvenience to lost plants to damage to structures, fences and raised beds. New York City's Green Thumb program and Parks Department helped remove some of the larger trees and limbs and some gardeners and helpers from the community took care of smaller trees on their own but much more work needs to be done to cut up and chip branches and to assess and prune trees that may be vulnerable to future storms.
Damaged Raised beds and Inundated Soil,  Campos Garden
Community Gardens that were inundated with debris have been cleaning up on their own with assistance from volunteers from all over. Often the community gardeners were overwhelmed with volunteers and did not have enough tools, gloves and garbage bags to get the job done. The organization I work for, GrowNYC helped with some of these things but we had supplies to assist only a couple of gardens. GrowNYC was also hampered by the fact that the vehicle we use, Grow Truck, was parked on a pier on the East River where it was flooded and became unusable.
Downed Tree and Damaged Shed, Villa Santurce Garden, Manhattan
More work needs to be done and the community gardeners and non profit organizations are planning for the spring when the gardens will need to repair and improve infrastructure and plantings and prepare the community gardeners so that in future storms the impact will not be as great.
Damaged Fence, El Sitio Feliz, Manhattan
So what is needed is not just to replace what was but to rethink the use of some materials and plants and to use storm resistant species and materials. Planting smaller trees like dwarf fruit trees as an example. Using plastic and composite lumber instead of wood will hopefully keep the raised beds in place if flooded again. Existing trees will need to be pruned preemptively to remove any limbs that are in danger of falling in future storms.
Inundated Soil, Battery Urban Farm, Manhattan
Other than the experienced labor to accomplish these tasks like tree climbers and pruners the most important thing needed is the dollars to pay for these services and the tools and materials needed to make the necessary repairs and improvements. Hopefully next time there will be a much happier story to tell

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Community Garden Chickens

This week brought some news that while not unexpected was troubling. The New York Times reported that in a sampling of eggs from community garden chickens elevated lead levels were found in a significant number of the eggs. Of the 58 eggs tested, 28 of them showed some amount of lead with the article reporting that the levels were from 10 to over 100 parts per billion in one egg.

The researchers from the New York State Department of Health were still looking at the results to determine if the lead was from the soil, feed or some other source. There wasn't a call to place a ban on the community garden chickens but the researchers did instruct the chicken keepers on how to minimize lead exposure.

This is very different from a recent brouhaha at some of the school gardens in NYC where a lead test performed by the city's education department showed the soil unfit for unrestricted use.  It is almost impossible for urban soils to pass the test for unrestricted use with most tests falling in the restricted use range.  This is something that urban gardeners have been aware of for almost 40 years.  Cornell Cooperative Extension has long had a fact sheet available on urban soils and what precautions to take when dealing with possibly contaminated soil.

I have dealt with this issue in previous posts on this blog and the conclusion I made then applies here as well. In community gardens that have been in existence for a number of years where the community gardeners have worked to build a healthy soil by adding compost and not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers,  heavy metals and other contaminants are much less of a problem. Long term sustainability is the key.

While some community gardens have had chickens for many years, widespread chicken keeping has happened over the last several years. Just Food has done a good job of training folks and providing support through their City Chicken Project but that doesn't mean that folks are all following the recommended best practices. Now finding lead levels in half of the eggs tested may mean that there is a big problem here but the eggs tested were from community gardens where the researchers had access so it was not a comprehensive or strictly scientific study.

Most of the soil used to grow vegetables in New York City Community gardens is soil brought in from outside the city so edibles are not grown in the native rubble soil that most community gardens are built on. Chickens that are roaming free in a garden or living in a coop built on the native soil can easily be exposed to high lead levels as they dig for insects, grubs and worms. With a little bit of work and careful attention to where the chicken coops are placed and where the chickens are allowed to forage, I think this issue can be easily resolved.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sustainability Events

Over the next 6 weeks I will be taking part in 3 events which will highlight the bicycle powered water pump I have designed. More important is that the 3 events are interactive events that showcase work that is being done mostly by do it yourselfers, small businesses and activists that are trying to create a sustainable environment which of course will include community gardens and urban agriculture.

In order of occurrence the events are World Maker Faire, New Green City and Farm Hack NYC.

September 29 and 30 will be the third annual World Maker Faire at the Hall of Science in Queens, NY. It is sponsored by Make magazine which if you have not seen it is an interesting magazine for do it yourselfers and gadget makers of all kinds. There will be displays, presentations and lots of cool and interesting things to do and see.
My presentation of the bicycle powered water pump will be on Sunday September 30th at 4:30 pm.

On October 10th GrowNYC will be sponsoring the free 7th Annual New Green City Event from 10 am to 5 pm in Union Square Park in Manhattan. Many exhibitors, action oriented workshops given by the New School and others, a pop up community garden and of course the bicycle powered water pump and a bicycle powered blender will make this a fun and educational event.

Farm Hack is a farmer driven event to build tools for farm resiliency. The FarmHack NYC event is at multiple locations in Brooklyn and Queens on November 10th and 11th. The focus is Urban agriculture and once again I will be showing off my bicycle powered water pump and rainwater harvesting display. I am really interested in helping to design and develop other human powered machines that will help Urban farmers and community gardeners with tasks like watering and composting that could be done with bicycles or other low tech machines.

All of these events and the hard work and dedication that so many folks are putting into helping to make sure community gardens and urban agriculture practitioners have the tools they need to be sustainable just validates for me what I have been writing in this blog over the past 2 years. It gives me hope for the future that no matter what the support is from government or foundations that people are joining together in communities to make thing happen. Yes!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Community Garden Conference and Tour of San Francisco

This month, I attended the American Community Gardening Association's annual conference in San Francisco. The conference had a lot to offer for community gardeners and community gardening professionals at all levels of involvement. I participated in 2 panels, 1 discussing community gardening policies which attracted a lot of interest as many cities are grappling with how to create a policy that will work. We had a lively discussion and a lot of ideas were shared. The point we were trying to make and the workshop title was "One Size Does Not Fit All" but even so it was worthwhile to hear what others were doing as a way to think about what could work in any city.

The second panel discussed the long term sustainability of community garden networks. There were many models, from cities that have highly managed networks of community gardens to cities that for one reason or another leave a lot to the community gardeners to organize and manage. What was clear throughout was that sustainability was the common goal - there was no wrong or right way to get there.

I attended a workshop about Lafayette Greens  , a community space paid for and developed by Compuware a Detroit based software company that created a space on a vacant lot 2 blocks from their offices that provides produce to the local food pantry as well as space for residents and office workers to enjoy. While it is a not your typical community garden - the 1/2 million dollar price tag and the fact that it was built by contractors  are not usual occurrences - but it does provide a lot of the same benefits of a community garden and it was built to be moved if the climate for business in Detroit improves to the point where the land will be needed for other purposes. This kind of turns the idea that community gardens improve the neighborhood to the point where the garden (and gardeners) can't afford to live there anymore on it's head. This garden was built to improve the neighborhood to the point where the garden would have to move, hmmm.

But for me the most interesting part of the conference was the garden tour. It was doubly interesting because it was a bicycle tour so I was able to do 2 of my favorite things at the same time, ride a bike and visit gardens. It was an enjoyable several hours of multitasking. I've visited San Francisco in the past but have never ridden a bike there.

   We visited the Glide Memorial Church's Graze the Roof garden that had all sorts of vertical planters (above) as well as other moveable planters made from recycled crates and other objects (below). They composted, kept bees and collected rainwater on the roof, three of the gardening  practices that are key to a sustainable garden.

The tour continued to a garden on Department of Public Works land. Located on the corner of Larkin and McAllister, The Tenderloin Peoples Garden was only about a year old but had the most chance of permanency of the 4 gardens I visited and it had a view of City Hall (below) and could be seen from City Hall.

The gardeners also had plans for a 17 foot high vertical garden structure designed by a young architect for a large wall on one side of the garden that included stairs to reach the higher planting areas and  rainwater collection from the adjacent buildings. The drain pipes and the wall are pictured below.

The Hayes Valley Farm was huge, located on what was an entry and exit ramp to Highway 101 that was damaged in the Earthquake in 1994. They have created all of the soil they use from sheet composting and there are a number interesting sculptures and structures in the space.

Plans to build new housing on the space are imminent, maybe as soon as October of this year but there is a piece of the land that is not in the development plan that could be a much smaller and possibly more permanent garden.

We ate lunch at the Free Farm, which is exactly what the name says - they had a free produce pickup in the farm while we were there. The garden is on a steep slope on the site of a church that burned to the ground.

They have permission to use the space but the church has plans to sell the land in the near future. They had a compost system, a greenhouse as well as a rainwater harvesting system and they grew many exotic vegetables. A number of vegetables were native to Southeast Asia and tropical areas but seemed to thrive in the San Franciscan frost free climate. Tree Kale is pictured below.

The conference, the gardens and the community gardeners made this conference and the time I spent in San Francisco interesting and rewarding. The pictures and descriptions only begin to tell and interesting and exciting story of the vibrancy of the community garden movement as told by San Franciscans but a similar but unique story could be told by dozens of cities across North America.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Bicycle Water Pump Creates Synergy

I usually am not that quick to blog about something that happened the same day and if I don't finish this soon that won't be happening today either. This afternoon I spent several hours with a youth group called A.C.T.I.O.N. (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood) at The Point in the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx. The Point and GrowNYC are collaborating on a project to introduce rainwater harvesting to the neighborhood. The kids (15-18 years old) listened and watched as I gave them some background into where their water comes from - the NYC reservoir system as far away as 250 miles from the Bronx. I didn't have to explain CSO's, they were aware of the issue of Combined Sewer Overflows.  We discussed the cost of water: they knew that a 0.5 liter bottle of water cost $1.25 at the bodega which comes to around $10 a gallon but it took them awhile to guess the per gallon cost of NYC tap water - $1. - No, 10 cents - No, 1 cent - got it! We talked about the true water cost of items like soda and chocolate. It takes 200 liters (52.8 gallons) of water to produce  a 0.5 liter -16.9 ounce bottle of soda and 1700 liters (449 gallons) of water to make a 100 gram - 3.5 ounce chocolate bar if you factor in all of the inputs. 

But the real fun and synergy happened when we went outside and the youth tried out the bicycle water pump that I created. The Point also has an Aquaponics project on site run by S.A.V.E. Farms (Society for Aquaponic Values and Education). The Aquaponics guys were emptying some nutrient rich water -"Fish poop water"  from one of the tanks which they were then going to use to water the garden by watering cans. The bicycle water pump was the right solution for the job with a dozen teens tired of listening to me and ready for some exercise, a 50 gallon barrel filled with fertilizer water and a parched garden. I only took one picture but more will show up soon as folks were coming out of their offices and pulling out their mobile phones to photograph the kids riding and water gushing. In the picture the water tank is behind the bike and the garden is to the left. The rider is watching the water coming out of the hose. Next week, the youth will fabricate another bicycle water pump for the Point to be used with their new rainwater harvesting system which they will build later in the month. The combination of harvested rainwater and nutrient rich fish tank water will practically guarantee that they will never  again have to use water from those far away reservoirs to water their garden. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Detroit and Michigan State University

June 2012 will go down in history as the first month that I did not blog at least once. After 27 consecutive months. Oh well I'll just have to start another streak. June was quite a busy month. I've been beekeeping with friends and now have a hive in my backyard waiting for bees. In June, I worked on completing 2 school gardens in Queens NY so Junior High schoolers in Jackson Heights and K-5 kids in Long Island City now have spaces to garden. I even worked with kids to make the grow bags to hang from a railing in the garden.  2 rainwater harvesting interns have been working with me on a storm water management project.  We are working together on planning a rooftop garden in Manhattan and a rainwater harvesting installation in the Bronx.  We will work with teenagers on both projects. A community garden enhancement to create space to grow vegetables for a local food pantry on Staten Island is in the planning stages. These last 3 efforts will be completed in July. I'm not seeing a lot of time for blogging in July either.

What did get me to the computer was a news item that Michigan State University is partnering with the  city of Detroit on MetroFoodPlus Innovation Cluster @ Detroit. On first read this is a wonderful idea.  Why not bring the resources of this great university to help the city utilize the untapped potential of the vast amount of vacant land and buildings to grow urban agriculture in a positive way. It is interesting that one of possibilities that is mentioned in the Detroit Free Press article is that they want to use vacant building for vertical agriculture, an idea that was pioneered in the Bronx in the 1980's. While that program eventually folded, it was still a great idea at the time and hopefully lessons will be learned and it will succeed this time around. So much could be done, as I have written in an earlier post about my idea for an Institute of Community Gardening . Ah but... there is a difference between urban agriculture  and community gardening. Urban Agriculture can be just a farm. A farmer making a living off the land. Nothing wrong with that although small farmers have a really hard time doing that in rural areas where land and farming inputs are inexpensive.  That may not be the case in an urban area. True, the transportation costs of getting the produce to market are lower but does that offset the added costs of doing business in the city?  The problem is Community Gardens have that complicated word attached to it - community.  People have to make decisions as a group. Not an easy task but very often a worthwhile one.

I know that the community garden folks in Detroit are watching this closely to make sure that community gardeners are not overwhelmed by the interests of corporations that have the money to fund this endeavor. Let's hope their voices are heard and @ Detroit has at least some of the flavor of an Institute of Community Gardening.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Vertical Gardening 2012 update

This is now the 3rd season for the Grow Bags in my backyard. In early spring I amended the soil in the bags and a few had deteriorated to the point where they needed to be retired. In most cases the polyester became brittle and shredded so they must be replaced.

I removed some of the styrofoam that was in the soil mix. I felt that too much styrofoam made the bags drain too well and I thought adding compost would help the plants growth. You can see in the pictures how the shredding looks and how the bags look in their 3rd season. I think that folks should plan on replacing the bags as they wear, which could happen as soon as 1 season but surely after 3 seasons.

In New York City many public schools have very little planting area so the parents, teachers and administrators that want to create school gardens are looking to plant vertical gardens. Grow Bags are  an ideal solution for schools. With a small investment in a grommet tool ($100-200), some grommets, zip ties and the bags which can be purchased or reused if they are saved after a delivery of sand or gravel, a school can create an inexpensive garden on little space. Most schools like community gardens also have fences and railings which are perfect for hanging Grow Bags.

My Grow Bags made it to Times Square as part of a model school garden display created by the Grow to Learn Program for a recycling exhibit on Earth Day. The garden was made from recycled lumber from Terracycle.

Grow Bags play a small part in the display but offer schools a possible way to garden on very little space. The fact that the bags need to be replaced regularly also offers the opportunity for future students to  feel a sense of accomplishment as they rebuild the garden. Students can also decorate the bags. A school I am working with this spring is doing just that as a 6th grade art class made the bags and the students are decorating them. I haven't seen their artwork yet but will pass along some photos to you readers when I see their finished work.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Our School at Blair Grocery

When I visit a city other than New York, I am always interested in visiting community gardening or urban agriculture projects. It is a great way to see what folks from different regions and different cultures are doing and to share some of my experience and learn from their experience. So when I had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans a couple of weeks ago with my family to sample the local food and music, I also wanted to visit a project that I have read and heard about called Our School at Blair Grocery.

So my daughter and I set off one morning to rent bicycles from a place a couple of blocks from our hotel in the French Quarter. The proprietor's initial reaction to our desire to go to the Lower Ninth Ward was that they usually don't get requests to ride to the Lower Ninth. In fact the bike map he had taped to the wall did not extend to that neighborhood. For those not familiar with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that low lying area was almost totally flooded when the levees were breached by the swollen Mississippi River. In fact we learned that the building used by Our School at Blair Grocery (OSABG), the former Blair family grocery store and home was flooded by 12 feet of water up to the windows on the second floor.

After giving us heavy duty bikes with puncture proof tires and a map printed out from his American Bicycle Rental Company computer, we set off on our way. It was just 5 miles and 3 turns, with some of the ride on a marked bike lane. The only problematic spot was a bridge which crossed the canal and narrowed to a point where only a car or truck could pass in each lane and we had to walk on a narrow path on the side. The bridge was the entrance to the Lower Ninth Ward and it gave us a vantage point to see that the land seemed to be below sea level. There was a lot of vacant land and a lot of abandoned, boarded up buildings. But we were not there to wander around gawking at devastation but we were riding with a destination in mind to see an example of the rebuilding or repurposing of some of the vacant land and buildings.

The Blair grocery building which years before Katrina housed the Blair family and a place for neighbors to gather and pick up bulk items and share local news, exactly the kind of neighborhood benefits that a community garden might provide. The family offered the folks who are leading the OSABG effort the use of the building and land as long as it is used to help educate local youth.

When we arrived at the site we found a group of teens busy working on covering the hoop greenhouse with burlap bags that were stitched together to provide shading as the sun and heat began to increase. We were given a tour and explanation of the mission, activities and sustainable practices by Jamie Katz who was one of a small core group. The core group had all spent time at Growing Power in Milwaukee where they learned some of the techniques they were using and the philosophy of using available resources, i.e.. land, food waste and human capital to provide healthy food, jobs and hope to people and communities. In fact OSABG bills themselves as a Growing Power  regional training center.

Perhaps the most enlightening thing I learned was that the group is constantly in the process of training people to learn their jobs of food production and distribution and teaching others to teach young people these skills. It was a busy place of folks working on the compost area, packing up sprouts to deliver to restaurants, unloading a pickup truck laden with food scraps from local supermarkets and sending out the truck to deliver the goods and pick up more compostable materials.

They had several pieces of  the sustainable puzzle that were specific to the New Orleans area. Sustainability comes in many forms and the use of area specific resources is key. They grew mushrooms in hanging "mushroom chandeliers" using dried Johnson grass (a particularly aggressive invasive weed that is hard to eradicate) as the growing medium.
Mirliton trellis

In one area, they grew mirlitons also known as vegetable pears or chayote. Mirlitons are perennial in New Orleans and are able to produce large quantities of fruit per vine. The OSABG folks still need to develop canning capabilities or partner with a group that does as the vines all ripen at the same time and the mirliton is traditionally canned or preserved.

Using intensive gardening techniques they were able to grow onions, tomatoes, pole beans and arugula all in the same bed with the bean plants trained on a hoop structure and shading the arugula from the intense sun and heat.

I was especially interested in an Aquaponics system that they were using as a way to grow fish and vegetables in a small space using the fish waste to fertilize the vegetables and circulating the water from the  aquaculture tanks to the hydroponic growing beds. The system was a good design for Milwaukee but at this time was not fully functional and Jamie explained that there were plans for a different system better suited to their climate.

All of the physical sustainable practices highlighted many techniques that could be emulated elsewhere but for me the social practices were more important. The fact that OSABG was a learning center was key. The word school is prominent in the name but also in their philosophy. The education system in New Orleans seems to be geared to preparing workers for low paying jobs in the hotels and restaurants while the OSABG training was preparing entrepreneurs to create a local economy. They also hired local youth to help on site providing job skills and much needed income for their families. The fact that there was not just one charismatic leader means that the work is shared and the vision is created by the group, a much more sustainable social model.

OSABG hosts many interns, volunteers and trainings and is well worth a visit by bicycle or even better some time or funds spent to help make this effort a continuing success story.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Process

It is often said that the process of reaching a goal is more important than the goal itself. As we try to create sustainable community gardens this is true with both the community and the gardening parts of community gardening. A group of people joining together to start a community garden will have to attend meetings to decide how to govern themselves and to develop rules and responsibilities of the members of the garden. This process can go a long way toward determining the success and longevity of the community garden. A contentious beginning may presage a future of ongoing conflicts in the group. An early series of meetings marked by cooperation and compromise could set the tone for a more harmonious future for the group.

A couple of projects I have participated in over the past few weeks have pointed out the importance of taking time and paying attention to the process in accomplishing garden improvement projects. Both projects take place at school gardens but the lessons learned apply for community gardens. At the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers school garden we embarked on a project to redesign and rebuild a garden shed that was in need of repair, to make the necessary repairs and turn the shed into a rainwater collector. Several meetings and many e-mails laid the groundwork needed to accomplish a complicated renovation. The existing roof had to be removed and the pitch of the roof changed to optimize the amount of rainwater collected. The students in the school were to take part in prefabricating the new walls and roof sections and in doing the demolition and reconstruction. Materials needed to be ordered and delivered on time and teacher and student schedules had to be arranged for the 3 day build.

One of the teachers at the school set up a blog to document the process from designing and prefabrication to the partial removal of sections of the roof and the walls. The blog posts tell the story in pictures and a little bit of commentary.

The other school project involves composting. Also an Urban Assembly school, The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School is located on Governors Island in New York Harbor. A 5 minute ferry ride from lower Manhattan is the only way to reach the school. The school's mission, includes making the students aware of the waterways surrounding New York City and the social, political and environmental issues which effect water quality, river and bay life and the workings of an active marine waterfront. Students go on to become ship captains and enter other water based careers in science, engineering and policy.

I visited the school to assess the possibility of using water conservation best practices by installing a rainwater harvesting system to water the school garden. What I saw in addition to the rainwater possibilities was a school wide composting program. The school has an Earth Tub composter which holds 3 cubic yards of organic waste. There is a whole process that has to take place in order to get the food waste and bulking agents into the composter.  Student interns collect buckets of food scraps from teacher rooms and the cafeteria and cart them outside to the Earth Tub. They have to chop the material into smaller pieces using hedge clippers. They also weigh the materials collected and log the totals, add wood shavings collected from the boatbuilding workshop, manually turn the tub, clean the buckets and return them to be refilled.

A "simple" part of a sustainable garden like composting takes a lot of planning and attention to process in order to make it a successful operation. Another example of how the process is in some ways even more important than the end result.

These two examples graphically show how important the process is in accomplishing a goal, a very important lesson from our schools to our community gardeners.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sustainability People

Sustainable Community gardens require many inputs. I can tick them off for you: water, soil, compost, seeds, pollinators, tools and labor. Since we are talking about what is primarily an urban activity we also have to include political and social sustainability. While labor and the physical inputs are important the more I research policy and permanency for community gardens, the issue keeps coming around to people. The passion and dedication of individuals in all of the input areas of community gardens is another major input that is usually overlooked. There are many dedicated individuals who spend countless hours volunteering in the gardens and attending meetings whose time and energy are crucial to the sustainability of community gardens.

In order to have a sustainable garden or farm, the soil has to have the necessary nutrients and structure for vegetables and fruit to flourish. If we want to have organic fruit and vegetables that means we have to have compost. In an urban area there is plenty of compostable materials; leaves, woody material, textiles, and food scraps are in abundance in most urban waste streams. In New York City that is 41% of household waste that can be recycled in source separated systems or in industrial compost systems. In tonnage that is 4920 tons per day. A very small percentage of that is being composted today but  PlaNYC has as a stated goal to create and expand systems to reduce the amount of materials being landfilled and composting can be a major part of this initiative.

Easy to make such a pronouncement but maybe not so easy to implement. There are a few small organizations and individuals that are dedicated to composting. Most have been doing organic waste projects for a number of years before PlaNYC. In fact PlaNYC is counting heavily on these folks to make this happen. Hopefully the municipal funds will be there to support these largely volunteer efforts. I have written here about Compost for Brooklyn and the Fort Greene Compost Project which was the pioneer group that showed how food scraps could be collected at GreenMarkets and composted locally. This has grown from a pilot at one greenmarket site to 11 sites. This project has collected 364,731 pounds in less than 1 year. Lower East Side Ecology Center has been composting local food waste since 1990 and continues to be a pioneer in setting up systems for organic waste recycling.

A relative newcomer to the city's neighborhood composting picture is the Western Queens Compost Initiative which brings me to the people part of the sustainability equation. Each of the projects I have listed is the brainchild and labor of love of one key person (often with assistance of hardworking volunteers). At Fort Greene it is Charley Bayre; at compost for Brooklyn, Louise Bruce; at Lower East Side Ecology Center, Christina Datz and at Western Queens, Stephanos Koullias. I spent a few minutes the other day speaking with Stephanos about the logistics of making this part of the sustainability equation work. The Western Queens Compost Initiative has set up an aerated static pile system to compost some of the Greenmarket food scraps. This is a low input system that seems to be ideal for urban systems. There is no need to turn windrows, so a tractor is not needed. It took a lot of coordination and dedication to the effort on the part of Stephanos to make this happen.

Even though compost will just happen if organic waste is left to it's own devices. In New York City that is definitely not the case. Without the people input of passion and dedication  these compost projects would not happen. In terms of creating a sustainable city and sustainable community gardens, compost is a key piece of the puzzle and the pivotal role of Community Gardening in sustainable systems is dependent on these dedicated sustainability people.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Grow to Give: Lessons Learned

In what was another example of the maxim that one size does not fit all in terms of community garden policies, the Staten Island Grow to Give Conference for Community Gardens and Food Pantries highlighted how different the reality of community gardening is on Staten Island compared to the rest of New York City. This conference was held at the St. John's University Staten Island Campus with 64 people braving a minor snow storm to attend.

I was part of the planning committee and one of the lead organizers of the conference. The conference grew out of the Staten Island Hunger Task Force, where the task force group wanted to start more community gardens on Staten Island to grow more fresh fruit and vegetables for the island's food pantries. The task force members decided that a conference that brought together community gardeners, food pantry organizers and volunteer groups could be the catalyst to create more gardens on Staten Island and to link both the existing gardens and new ones to food pantries. There was also the need to address logistics for even the most basic need as getting the produce from the gardens to the pantries.

Originally we thought there were only 2 community gardens on Staten Island but through outreach for the conference that number reached 8. and around 30 food pantries.  Staten Island has the smallest population of New York City's 5 boroughs with just over 500,000 residents. One very active garden the Staten Island Moravian garden  actually was a perfect example of what the conference organizers wanted to see, a garden that donates produce to a local food pantry, Project Hospitality. Another community garden, the Roots of Peace Community garden, that started just last summer was on private land but received technical support from the Staten Island office of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. A little research by the director of the New York City municipal community gardening program, GreenThumb, revealed that there was only 1 vacant lot under the jurisdiction of the Housing Preservation and Development city agency (HPD) which was the source of most of the vacant lots that developed into community gardens in the other 4 boroughs of New York City. In comparison Brooklyn has 900 HPD lots. So any future gardens would have to be created on other vacant or underutilized land.

As the Castleton Hill Moravian Church showed, one possibility is church land. There are over 100 churches on Staten Island, many with underutilized land and some with food pantries. Despite the lack of city owned vacant land, there are many privately owned vacant lots as in the case of the Roots of Peace community garden and 2 others that were identified as community gardens on private property. Some of the new community gardens could be built on church or private land. Staten Island also boasts over 12,300 acres of protected parkland including federal, state and city parks. In fact one of Staten Island's community gardens is in Miller Field in Gateway National Recreation Area. Some of these acres parkland are underutilized land that could be turned into community gardens.

Volunteer  and other groups that could provide manpower were represented by groups like the Girl Scouts, Morgan Stanley and youth probation department.

This conference gave Staten Islanders a better picture of what community gardens exist today and how to get involved, how to start new gardens, where to look for land to start new gardens, how to connect to food pantries and what groups might provide helping hands. It also showed those of us who are concerned about community garden policies that even in a particular city, one policy does not fit all possible scenarios.