Collaborative Gardening

Biking across town, Kassia pulled a bike trailer loaded down with extra tools and gloves. Sky and Willow biked together with the ride-along bike. First stop was Jessica and Evan’s place. Jessica had been meaning to put in a living fence shrub barrier at the edge of the lawn to protect her 3 kids from the street; she directed us w/baby Maya strapped onto her back. A few people tackled that task and planted along the lawn, digging below the gravel layer to the dirt below. The 5 women in the group then descended on de-rocking one of the garden patches. The various kids ran about and played together.

After a break for home-made zucchini bread and tea, some folks headed home and the rest of us regrouped around the corner at Patsy’s garden. Some new folks showed up and helped us turn over both garden plots and mix in vital organic matter (i.e. leaves). Everyone had a great time, and the “hosts” were very grateful for the extra help. Everyone asked, “when’s the next one?”

reclaiming the land from wire-grass!

reclaiming the land from wire-grass!

This was the first garden work-party we organized, an experiment in collaborative home-garden support.

Upon moving to Cville it became clear to us that EVERYONE (and their dog) has a garden at their house. But many people are stretched thin between work, kids and other obligations; its hard to find enough time to keep up with the garden. In January, our friend Flame expressed to Sky that she was going to need to spend more time making money. Knowing that gardening is important to Flame (for all the reasons mentioned above), Sky offered to come help her out.

Knowing that Flame is not in a unique position, and knowing that a group can get more done and keep moral up, we decided to start organizing neighborhood garden support groups. The idea was to create groups with 4 gardens in close proximity, and each week the gardeners would work together on one or two plots. We got a little stuck trying to figure out the best way to catalyze this, so, upon recommendation from our friend Dawn, we just tried something.

everyone loves pizza

everyone loves pizza

The success of the first garden work-party asked for a second one. Two weekends later about 9 of us descended on the backyard of a neighbor of our friend Jennifer. The neighbor had offered the use of her yard in exchange for a minimum amount of produce in exchange. After several hours of tedious but companionable digging we retreated to Jennifer’s place. She has a wood-fired cob oven and we made pizzas for the crew, plus a half-dozen others who showed up to socialize.

In our travels before moving to C’ville it became increasingly clear that food is important. Our national food policy for the last several decades has been all about mass producing cheap food (the average american spends less on food than any other country in the world), which is unhealthy and grown in environmentally destructive ways (check out the documentary King Corn, www.kingcorn.net).

Things are changing. World food shortages over the last few years have resulted in starvation for people in developing countries but merely inconvenience and concern for Americans.   Peak oil and climate change are only going to exacerbate the problems. The obesity and diabetes epidemics are raising awareness around health concerns. Habits are shifting; in recent years organics has been the fastest growth sector of the food industry. Intuitively, and increasingly in practice, people prefer small-scale, locally produced food to big agri-business.

A plethora of initiatives have popped up all over the country. Groups have begun organizing around the book Food Not Lawns (a play on the organization Food Not Bombs). CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) operated on small plots of land within city limits are on the rise. GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies) in Chico, CA, and Growing Gardens in Portland, OR are a couple of our favorite projects.

What most people don’t know is that in the US, fossil fuels used in food production and shipment is greater than that used for personal transportation and household energy consumption. People like to refer to Cuba in terms of what we’re heading towards and what we can do. Cuba experienced an artificial peak oil in the nineties when the USSR collapsed; they lost 80% of their fossil fuels overnight. The average Cuban lost 20 lbs during the transition to a sustainable, organic agriculture system. Now, about half the food consumed by residents of Havana (with a population of about 2 million) is grown within the city limits (check out the documentary Power of Community, www.powerofcommunity.org).

But beyond the geo-political issues, food is key to community. A friend said recently, “most groups need some kind of spiritual practice to really bond them. But in the absence of that, eating together will do.” At Woodfolk House we have house dinners every night. It’s amazing how far this goes to creating social cohesion. When you combine eating food together with growing food together, the effect increases exponentially.

Their are benefits across the board. There is a personal sense of satisfaction in providing this most basic level of sustenance for yourself. Sharing this work with other people satisfies important social needs. Then there’s the economic benefit of applying labor to reduce your need for money. And there’s something essentially spiritual about fostering the growth of life.

In the process of organizing the garden work-parties, the grapevine brought us a few people in our neighborhood interested in collaborative gardening. Sky met Stefan at a screening of the Power of Community and found out he lives nearby. Our friend Shelly referred us to a woman named Bess, who has a friend named Adriane.  They live right across from each other less than two blocks from Woodfolk House. After an initial meeting we had our first work-party. We expanded the groundhog protection around Stefan’s garden to give him more space to grow, and filled two garden boxes full of compost and top soil for Beth. Beth also has 4 rabbits that produce far more manure than she can use, so we finished the day off by bringing two huge wheelbarrow fulls of it down to Woodfolk. We plan to meet weekly, share seeds and starts, and support each other in our gardening efforts.

There are numerous business, organizations and support networks for small scale agriculture in the area, including some, like Quality Community Council and the local chapter of the International Rescue Committee, who are using gardening as a tool for addressing racial and economic inequality and injustice.    Issues of race and justice are a core piece of the conversation about agriculture and sustainability.  New secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, talked about this in one of his first speeches <http://www.federationsoutherncoop.com/albany/Vilsackspeech.pdf>).

It’s gratifying to add some energy to an already energetic network. As the world begins to face the combined challenges of peak oil and climate change, food is only going to become more important.

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~ by karmakas on March 15, 2009.

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