Search This Blog

Friday, December 27, 2013

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Things I've Seen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vertical Gardening 2013 Update

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

Friday, May 17, 2013

Is There A Community Garden I Can Join?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 17, 2013


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The End of Community Gardening as We Know It?

It may be that the winter doldrums are in full force but  it seems that everything I read recently or issues that come up about community gardening are changing what the term means. When movements mature they are often co-opted, commercialized or changed by various forces. Community Gardening has all of those forces at play. People want to call all kinds of things community gardening that maybe should not be. Urban Agriculture is the term du jour. Almost everyone loves talking about urban agriculture. Local food, locavores, artisanal food products are all words that get lots of play in the media as they point out the ways to commercialize urban agriculture. Community gardeners have been caught up in the wave and brought to the marketplace. A community garden that isn't selling some of their produce is not taking advantage of the opportunities out there to make money. All of the other value that community gardening brings to a livable city is overshadowed by the value of the produce that is sold.

There is a lot of conflict about selling produce grown on community garden land, not the least of which is the use of municipal land for 'profit'. I put profit in quotes because for the most part we are talking about relatively small sums of money and no one I know is getting rich selling tomatoes, basil or eggs from a community garden. Much like many farmers are operating on small profit margins and not getting rich or even paying the bills without someone in the family working off farm to provide health insurance or helping to pay the mortgage. Even so the city agencies that own the land are looking hard at the use of public land for profit. There great programs that work on high school grounds utilizing the garden to teach all kinds of subject matter and in some cases supplying food to school cafeterias. Once they begin to sell some of the produce at little farm stands to support the program there is now cash around and everybody wants a piece. A perfect example of how the community benefits of an urban agriculture project is trumped by how much money is made by the program.

Those touted as visionaries are the ones that are growing food on rooftops. Absolutely, there is a place for rooftop farms. They can make money by supplying fancy restaurants and selling at small markets but their inputs are higher than in the ground farmers so thy have to charge a higher price to make a profit. They also have to think big. The size of the largest urban farm keeps increasing from 40,000 square feet to now 100,000 square feet . There are economies of scale and  in terms of local food security these large projects are necessary to provide more than a fraction of a percent of the fresh food needs of the city.

Why all of the talk about rooftops? What is the connection to community gardens? Community gardeners see the notoriety that rooftop farming and urban agriculture is getting and once again see that their efforts and the benefits of community gardens are not valued. My concern is that city planners and politicians will decree that the only thing that matters is the bottom line. If taken to the extreme, it could get to the point where all government and foundation support vanishes and the land goes to the person or business that has the best plan for making money and being self supporting. Those most in need will be left fighting on the ground for the crumbs while those higher up off the ground both literally and financially will get the fancy crops.

I hope it does not come to this but once again community gardeners' volunteer time and effort must go to being constantly vigilant to what is going on around the city and not letting their efforts be disregarded.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Continuing Threats to Community Gardens

Once again we have been reminded that there are people out there who don't think community gardens are a good idea.  The news of two different threats this past week to community gardens in Philadelphia and Camden make us realize that community gardens, even ones that have been in existence for many years face threats from a variety of sources. In the Camden case it is the state of New Jersey. While not a typical community garden, the Camden Children's Garden, in existence since 1999, is run by the non- profit Camden Garden Club, has 100,000 visitors a year and runs environmental and nutritional programs on the site which started as a "horticultural playground". Aren't community gardens horticultural playgrounds?

The state wants to transfer the land to the private aquarium on the adjacent property, so there may be a monetary motive involved. The Camden Children's Garden has not had an agreement or a lease with the state even though there is a butterfly house and a gazebo on the property. What did the state of New Jersey think was going on here? In addition to the Children's garden, the Camden City Garden Club has been assisting Camden residents interested in starting community gardens with tools, seeds, plants and workshops since 1985.

This news came just days after a report that the Philadelphia City Council backed away from a plan to limit community gardens and urban agriculture in mixed use commercially zoned areas. Gardeners and urban farmers would have to get approval from the zoning board to operate in these mixed use areas. It took a campaign by Philadelphia community gardeners and garden supporters to fight this threat and convince the City Council to change their thinking. The fact that both cities have a surplus of vacant land makes these two stories seem even more unbelievable.

The situation in Philadelphia should never have gotten to the point that required gardeners to have to fight this threat. However there are are always politicians and bureaucrats that see community gardeners as a threat or as a cash cow.  It seems like no amount of good will that community gardeners earn by providing volunteer time to clean up and bring a positive use to land abandoned or neglected by the city can convince some people of the benefits of community gardens. Thankfully most can be convinced as they were in Philadelphia by campaigns that win over public opinion.  Hopefully the situation in Camden will be resolved like the one across the Delaware.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Raise Some Funds for Your Community Garden

This is the perfect time to raise money for a community garden. Even with our warmer than ever winter, there is not a lot to do in the garden and many days are too cold, too damp or too windy to spend time in the garden. So it is a great time for planning or ordering seeds or plants and finding the money to pay for all of those plans and plants. A few grant announcements have come my way in the past week which I will pass along.

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) has partnered with the Darden Restaurants Foundation to make available grants  for community gardens that benefit families and individuals of low-income status. This would be a great opportunity to obtain funds to help build or expand a community garden that fosters stewardship and outdoor activity while donating the produce to those in need. The grants will range from $2,500 to $7,500 and will be awarded to 10 communities.

The application deadline is Wednesday, February 6, 2013 and you can find out more about the grant and benefits of community gardens here.

All About the Fruits and Veggies Grant Program
Sponsor: Jamba Juice & the National Gardening Association

Please contact the National Gardening Association's Kids Gardening for more information and to apply for this funding:

The All About the Fruits and Veggies grant program will provide youth garden initiatives with gardening supplies, curriculum, soil amendments, and plants to help create engaging nutrition and gardening experiences.

Awards of $500 worth of materials will be granted to forty youth and school garden programs. Schools, community organizations, and nonprofit gardening programs with at least fifteen children between the ages of 3 and 18 are eligible to apply.

Deadline: February 18, 2013

For New York City groups:
Have a Great Idea for a Community Project?

Through their Community Grants , Citizens Committee awards grants of $500-$3,000 to resident-led groups to work on community and school improvement projects addressing issues that they identiy as important to them.

Projects that have been funded in the past are as varied as community gardening, theater and fine arts, nutrition awareness, composting, beautification, tenant organizing, youth education, physical fitness, public safety, and more.

Read their grant guidelines and download the application . The application deadline is January 31, 2013


These are just a few grant opportunities but there are many more possibilities. Most areas have garden clubs that disburse funds for different types of projects including community gardens. There are local sources including local related businesses like garden centers, hardware stores, banks or grocery stores. The important first step is to decide what you want to do with the funds. It could be money for events, a toolshed, tools to put in the shed, printing costs for flyers, plants or seeds. Create a letter stating the need and the expected results. Now you are ready to find those funds. It may not happen right away but from my experience planning ahead and being ready with the ask means that when the opportunity presents itself, you can take advantage.

A good resource to help if you are just getting started or want to gather good information to add to your letter or grant proposal is a new fact sheet from the Local Government Commission, Cultivating Community Gardens .  The folks who get the help are the ones who ask. So don't be afraid to ask.