Conservation and the Community Garden: One Suburban Model That Works
SUMMARY: Conservation efforts are surely the only sane response to the insane destruction accelerating all around us. But what should we spend our time conserving, and how can we maximize success? In this essay I discuss my local community garden as a conservation project and the factors that I believe are making it successful.
SANITY IN THE AGE OF DESTRUCTION
By any measure, we are surely destroying the world.
Every aspect of it.
And we are doing it with a determination and fury that literally resembles war.
We are scattering the toxic elements of the lithosphere heedlessly across the living surface of the planet. We are fouling our sacred oceans, making them waste bins for every conceivable poisonous substance we have ever produced. We are systematically dismantling every terrestrial ecosystem, replacing them with habitat suitable only for machines. And we are profoundly corrupting our atmosphere -- and with it, the very energy balance of our planet! – altering it on a geological scale in a matter of decades.
And of course, by killing the Earth we also kill ourselves -- for we are and will always be OF the Earth. But that is not enough for us. In our fevered industrial delusions, we also turn the bitter wrath of our worst impulses directly back onto ourselves. We cynically sell our hearts, our communities, and our children to the soul-killing scourge of rapacious consumerism. And to secure our ever-larger consumptive fix, we steal from the easiest victims – the poor -- locking them into cycles of self-destruction and misery. Then we riddle them with bullets in the name of corporate profits – brazen theft and murder we rename as ‘economic aid’ and ‘nation-building’.
It is, of course, a form of insanity. All of it. And it has been easily recognized as such by indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. But it is recognized as such only rarely by those whose minds are colonized by the pernicious worm of industrialism.
But sometimes it IS recognized -- and even resisted. And this resistance is the ONLY form of sanity in the face of destruction.
It is called conservation.
It is the conservation of wetlands, forests, rivers, lakes, and grasslands. It is the conservation of watersheds, farmland, ecosystems, and species. It is the conservation of traditional knowledge, seeds, skills, and languages. It is the conservation of families, neighborhoods, and communities. It is the conservation of honesty, forgiveness, kindness, and mercy. It is the conservation of hope.
And in every single act of conservation -- this noble resistance against the howling insanity of industrial destruction -- is the redemption of our fallen species.
CONSERVATION AND COMMUNITY GARDENS
OK, so that was heavy. But now that we’ve perhaps established that conservation is the only sane response to destruction, how does one go about conserving stuff?
Biologist David Ehrenfeld, author of Becoming Good Ancestors (2009) and the founder of the journal Conservation Biology, gave a talk recently in which he outlined the rather narrow set of practical circumstances by which conservation projects in his field have tended to succeed. He gave three necessary conditions: (1) intimate knowledge of the ecology of the organism and its habitat, (2) close involvement of local people in the conservation project, and (3) assistance and cooperation from the governing body of the area.
He gave several interesting examples from his research -- peppered throughout with his self-effacing humor, honesty, and compassion – but I started thinking about how our local community garden might fit in with his model of successful conservation.
First of all, I like to think that our work in the local community garden would fall under the category of ‘conservation’.
I would argue we are trying to conserve several important things as we gather every week to work, talk, and enjoy the weather. We are trying to conserve the fertile soil of our garden, saving it from erosion and industrial depredations. We are trying to conserve the ancient knowledge of food production – now largely lost through attrition and neglect in our industrial culture. We are trying to conserve the little genetic miracles of open-pollinated vegetable seeds from the anonymous demise to which so many have already succumbed. We are trying to conserve our connections to each other – the bonds of our community – by working and talking together in a shared, meaningful endeavor. And we are trying to conserve our connections to the natural world – the now-almost-forgotten world that lies beyond the blinking screens, paved roadways, and climate-controlled boxes that have enveloped us and numbed us to reality.
And in addition to working towards conserving some things, I would also like to think we are succeeding – at least so far and on some limited basis.
Our garden, now in its second year and hitting its stride, has been wildly successful by any standards. The third-of-an-acre plot (plus an attached and expanding orchard) is visited each Saturday morning by 20 to 50 eager gardeners – ranging from senior citizens to toddlers; from novice and experienced. Enthusiasm, learning, hard-work, and neighborly good cheer are the prevailing themes – and have been maintained as such steadily since the garden’s inception. These positive attitudes have not only persisted throughout the entire first year, but have increased markedly so far in the second year.
We’re growing good vegetables and good community at the same time. The whole thing just feels right. So in its necessarily-limited scope, I’d say that, yes, our garden is a success – or at least it’s on a successful trajectory.
OUR COMMUNITY GARDEN: THE PHYSICAL SET-UP
Now, in the next few parts of this essay, I want to do two things: (1) describe the general model we use for our successful suburban community garden, and (2) outline some of the key organizational features that I believe have helped it thrive.
And I’m not doing this to brag -- but rather as an attempt to educate. So many community gardens in my area have failed in short order, while ours is the sole survivor. And it is my general impression that, nationwide, there are many attempts at community gardens, but few real successes.
Perhaps my community has unwittingly hit on a suburban model that works and could be replicated in some appropriate fashion in other suburban areas. And perhaps it can make some small contribution to the myriad other small efforts to conserve of our world in the face of all the imposing forces that have marshaled together to destroy it. It’s worth a shot.
OK, so how is our garden set up?
We have a fenced-off 120-foot by 120-foot plot (about one third of an acre), plus large adjacent hayfields into which our fruit/nut orchard is expanding. The land is owned by the NJ state farmland-preservation program and administered by our township as a public park. Our official community garden meeting time is Saturday at 10am, but people can come and go on the property as they wish during the week. The garden gate is not locked.
We initially roto-tilled 23 permanent 3-foot-wide, 100-foot-long rows within the garden. Four of those rows (so far) are planted in perennial veggies & fruits, while the others are roto-tilled once per year in the Spring and planted in a diverse collection of annual veggies. There are 2-foot-wide grass paths/strips between each row, which we mow once per week. The grass clippings are collected and composted. Our orchard has over 20 fruit and nut seedlings so far and will expand annually.
We fertilize the permanent rows with both composted manure from local farms (cow & horse bedding) and our own composted garden and kitchen waste. We don’t use any herbicides, pesticides, or chemical-fertilizers. Pest damage is lessened by the use of row covers and crop rotation. We have a hose-fed drip irrigation system that we have needed to use infrequently so far – basically for drought insurance.
HOW IT'S RUN: ORGANIZED ANARCHY
I would call the people-part of our garden organization a sort of ‘organized anarchy’. In other words, there are few rules, but a definite conscious nudging by the informally-appointed garden leaders towards a desired outcome. And it’s been improbably effective.
The garden is open to all Township residents on a very informal basis. In other words, there is no obligatory annual fee, no official member list, no assigned work hours, and no assigned harvest amounts. It’s very-much a self-policing, self-organizing entity in many (but not all) respects. Some monetary donations are necessary, of course, for seeds and essential tools, but that is more than covered by voluntary annual contributions of usually $20 by many of the families involved.
Again, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this very loose arrangement to work, but it has. Maybe chalk it up to ‘small is beautiful’ in both the overall scale and management senses.
We meet once a week, on Saturday mornings, from 10 am to about noon. I send out JUST ONE email during the week to about 150 people on our contact list. The email outlines what we did the previous Saturday, what we need to do during the coming Saturday, the financial summary, the map of garden plantings to date, and some general info for new members (directions to garden, some soil-care info, etc). Note: If you want to get on this email list to see what I mean, just email me at danallen1968 at yahoo dot com.
On Saturday mornings people show up – usually between 20 and 50 people -- and find something useful to do. This involves things like weeding, planting seeds, starting seeds, watering germinating seeds, spreading or turning the compost, mulching, and harvesting. Both I and another experienced gardener dispense seeds, technical advice, and assign tasks to people who don’t know what to do. Inexperienced gardeners usually fall-in with those who have some experience. Kids (and rank beginners) are heartily welcome to participate -- and some unquantified lessening-of-yield is accepted from their innocent and inevitable depredations.
Some people can’t make it on Saturday and come during the week to do some work. We’ve also organized both a ‘mowing team’ and a ‘germinating-seed watering team’ to take care of those tasks during the week. Also, any seedlings started at the garden are taken home to be cared for by experienced gardeners.
Harvest works like this: If you show up and do some work, you go home with some food. How much? Each person takes some approximately-appropriate fraction of what’s harvestable that day. If there’s not much, only take a little. If it looks like there’s a lot or it’s verging on over-ripe, take more. First come, first served. Again, it doesn’t seem like this loose model would work, but it does – so far, and at this scale and gardener-density at least.
So there it is – our community garden in a nutshell.
BUT WHY IS OUR GARDEN SO SUCCESSFUL?
Now I realize that our model, however successful for us, is not necessarily transferrable to other suburban areas. Local cultures, while quite industrially-homogenized at this point, are still different in many ways. Economic situations may also be very different.
But that begs the question: Why is our particular garden so successful while so many others have failed. To answer this, I think we can go back to David Ehrenfeld’s model of conservation successes I discussed earlier.
Perhaps we can apply Ehrenfeld’s successful-conservation-project model to illuminate the key essential elements of our garden that make it a success. And maybe it is these essential elements, rather than the specific details of our garden, which CAN be transferred to other areas and generate a better rate of success than we currently see with community gardens.
Again, it’s worth a shot.
REQUIREMENT ONE: SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY'RE DOING
Ehrenfeld’s first requirement for conservation success is an intimate knowledge of the ecology of the entity or entities to be conserved. In our case, we could say that we are conserving gardens, gardening skills, and heirloom seeds. This requires an intimate ecological knowledge of how gardens work – the seeds and plants, the soil, the weeds, the compost, the climate of the area, and both the pests and beneficial organisms that share our garden.
Put another way, you need one or two people who really know what they’re doing – who understand Ecology and who’ve maybe done gardening on at least a semi-commercial, farm-stand level.
Our garden has this presently, in me and another fellow. And even though perhaps it sounds self-aggrandizing, I have a feeling that the whole operation wouldn’t work otherwise.
It’s just too crucial to know that, for example, you shouldn’t put tomato seedlings outside in early-April even if it is 95 degrees. Or that succession plantings give a more even harvest for a lot of veggies. Or that compost really IS really important. Or that you really should take some extra time to get a good seed-bed before planting. Or that maybe fifty feet of turnips is more than people will want. Or what row really needs to be weeded RIGHT now to avoid lots more work later on. Stuff like that.
REQUIREMENT TWO: MAKE IT FUN AND LOOSE
Ehrenfeld’s second requirement for conservation success is the close involvement of the local people. In our case, that means getting the people to come out to the garden and to KEEP coming out – to maintain enthusiasm in the face of crop failures, hard weeding, hot weather, gnats, and busy personal lives.
And the way to do that in absence of a pressing physical need to grow their own food is to simply make the garden fun.
I think we do that two ways. The first is to keep everything positive. I’ve chosen to keep my ‘doom and gloom’ stuff out of the weekly community garden email. The people in my community are, for the most part, just really not into that stuff. And I don’t want to drive them away from this important project because they think we’re gathering to hone our post-carbon survival skills and gird our community for the techno-pocalypse. Now, of course, that’s precisely what I think, but I keep it to myself at the garden. I just put a ‘good for our health, good for the environment, and good for the community’ spin on my weekly email, and people can handle that.
This avoidance of overtly addressing our very real and very pressing environmental and energy predicaments is perhaps a little bit of a cop-out, I suppose, but I want the project to be primarily about learning how to garden and community-bonding, and I think this tact is the best way to advance those goals – right now, and in my community, at least.
The second way we get people to keep coming, I think, is the very loose organizational structure of the garden. People are so damned busy these days with all their industrial dithering-about that, for the most part, they just can’t fit another hard-and-fast commitment into their schedule.
There are only a handful of members who come like clockwork to the garden every week. A good part of our weekly attendees are the part-timers who we see only once every few weeks or once a month. But since we have lots of these part-timers, we still get a quality showing every week. I purposely don’t take ‘attendance’ so people won’t feel bad showing up sporadically like this.
In other words, by making it OK to come only now and then, and to stay for however long they want when they do come, we’re able to tap into even the too-busy-for-a-garden population – which is sizable in our suburban town. And really, it’s THESE people anyway who will need to know a hoe from a horseradish root when the manure hits the fan on a grand scale.
REQUIREMENT THREE: GET HELP FROM ABOVE (...BUT NOT TOO MUCH)
Ehrenfeld’s final requirement for successful conservation projects is the assistance and cooperation of the local governing body – in our case, the township government. With my somewhat anarchic political leanings, I initially bristled a bit at this idea. But in thinking about it more, especially in relation to our garden, I can see its wisdom.
Firstly, our garden has indeed benefitted from encouragement and timely assistance of our town government – namely from my mom, Julia Allen, who happens to be our mayor. As not only the mayor but one of the architects of the very-successful NJ state farmland preservation program, she was one of the co-founders of the garden – seeing it as a good use of one of the township’s preserved farms. In addition to offering the land for the garden, our township also erected the deer/groundhog fence and hauls a few loads of manure to our garden each spring.
But that’s it.
Other than that generous help to get us started, they leave us totally alone. I don’t have to fill out any stupid reports or beg them for any more money, or anything at all. I just keep the self-sustaining garden organized and on track. Our town government has simply facilitated the project and then faded into the background – still paying attention, but not intrusive.
Perhaps this is the definition of good government.
Contrasting our township government’s involvement with that of neighboring towns is instructive. These other towns are making prospective garden organizers jump through hoop after hoop, with the result being some combination of stagnation, watering down, or outright death of the project.
The lesson here is this: the local authorities, through various legal and financial means, usually control the kill-switch on community projects like these – no matter how virtuous the organizers’ intents. As a result, you pretty much need at least their blessing to get started. BUT…that’s where the involvement should end. Any community project worth its salt should be able to be pretty much self-sustaining from here on. Otherwise it’s not really a ‘community’ project in the truest sense.
It is for this reason that I have consciously avoided applying for all the sizeable community-garden grants being thrown our way – both from locally-based multi-national corporations and from other state and federal governmental organizations. I just ignore them. Why? Couldn’t we use several thousand dollars to ‘improve’ our garden? My answer: NO!!! DOUBLE NO!!! HELL NO!!!
As the Patron Saint of Economic Sanity, Wendell Berry, has written, any movement trying to make a positive change within this maelstrom of industrial destruction has got to content itself with being poor. Why? The reason is, I think, deeper than just the “money corrupts” answer that first springs to mind.
The reason is simply that the ONLY way out of the deadly and doomed industrial sewer we’ve dug ourselves is through refashioning the intricate web of local economic and social relations that can bind a local community together. And this doesn’t require money inputs from outside. And it doesn’t require organizational help from the state and federal governments.
No, it requires trust and familiarity between neighbors; it requires hard work and practical knowledge; it requires the conscious practice of kindness and cooperation. Basically, it requires people realizing that these social and economic connections within the community are worth far, far more than money or possessions or anything having to do with industrial consumption. That’s it.
Our garden needs to run, so to speak, on community and ecological power – not money.
So let them keep their money. Heck, it’s not gonna be worth anything before too long anyway. But our community will. It’ll be damn priceless, for sure.
BUT C'MON, IS THIS TYPE OF THING REALLY ENOUGH?
Now, as proud as I am of our Community Garden and the progress we’re making, there’s a nagging, doomerish voice in the back of my head that says, “C’mon, give me a break. The s#*t is so close to the fan at this point, and is so much larger than anybody realizes that this sort of community garden piddling is about as useful as a bail-bucket on the titanic.”
While I admit that annoying-scary voice sort of has a point, it begs the question, “Then what the hell else are we supposed to do?”
Here’s the deal: In light of our imposing environmental, energetic, and environmental predicaments, it’s quite clear what we need to do as a civilization. We need to deconstruct our doomed and deadly growth-based economy in a step-wise manner before it both implodes catastrophically into apocalypse and erodes the biological foundation of our species any more than it already has.
It’s also quite clear that we’re not gonna do it. Apparently we’re not even gonna try.
All ‘signals from above’ indicate that our corporate/political leaders (for they are truly the same at this point) are indeed willing to have it all go down catastrophically. Our industrial culture is so far removed from biophysical reality at this point that it is literally unable to collectively read, much less respond to, the crystal-clear warning signals emanating from every single molecule on the planet.
Despite the understandable-but-delusional hope that Obama was the one to save us, he is not. We are full-speed-ahead, pedal-to-the-floor, with the abyss of the approaching cliff now clearly in view. There is no one who is going to save us. The ship is going down – probably hard and fast when it finally happens.
As scary as it is to imagine it, we will shortly be very much on our own. How long do we have? Months? Years? Hard to say. But sometime soon, if neither you, your family, nor your community can supply something for you, you will not have it. Period. Furthermore, if you or your family have something and your community doesn’t, don’t plan on keeping it very long.
What this implies, of course, is that we must use every ounce of our energy, creativity, and will-power RIGHT NOW to prepare ourselves at the individual, family, and – especially – at the community levels for the coming no-money, low-energy, climatically-destabilized future.
And that means that ANY effort to obtain the skills we will need is worth our time.
And sure, maybe it WON’T matter. Maybe a horde of barbarians will sack our gardens to dust at the peak of ripeness. Maybe a mega-drought or mega-storm will utterly depopulate your entire state in a few years or decades.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
But maybe not. Maybe the skills we learn and the connections we make this season WILL make the difference. Maybe a BIG difference.
Heck, it’s the only chance we’ve got. So let’s do it.
…So then I’ll see you at the garden on Saturday? I’ll bring the seeds. I think the tree swallows are fledging.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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