In this series of posts we explore the challenges (big + small) we face as a society, and the creative ways in which people come together to become the mechanism for change.
I love this photo. I took it in the Hershey Children’s Garden at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, and it makes me happy for two reasons: 1) it reminds us that cotton comes from the earth – it’s a plant that gives us this amazing material that clothes us, and 2) the children’s garden is a wonderland of nature where kids can roam around, explore, and creatively play. (If you’re local, it’s totally worth the membership.)
Being in nature and digging in the earth are great for kids – and for me, too. Gardening is my personal zen time. The thing is, a lot of families (like ours) don’t have rambling wooded acreage to frolic around in. In our neighborhood in Shaker Heights, people tend to hang out in their front yards, which makes our area very social. You just walk out and see who’s around, which is great, but we do this because we don’t really have any backyards to speak of. There are no “woods out back” like my best friend Beth and I had growing up. Our street has lovely old trees, very tall and shady. Our yard has five of them, putting us in near total shade — nice for environmental climate control and for a 30-foot swing, but not so good for growing vegetables.
I got lucky because not long after I moved here, the church two blocks away decided to buy an empty plot across the street where a house had been torn down, and turn it into a community garden. I joined the new garden along with two of my neighbors. The first year we leveled the land and built raised plots.
The second year we used reclaimed sidewalk slate to build a meditative labyrinth in one corner, the church planted apple trees, berry bushes, and a strawberry patch, and my plot neighbor planted a wall of wildflowers. An eyesore of a piece of land turned into something beautiful and functional.
My little boy is my best helper. Every other day we walk to the garden together and see what’s growing. We rent our 4×12′ plot space for $35/year, and we can plant whatever we want in it, provided we use only organic gardening methods. Each member harvests only from her own plot, but we often share with one another. We also share knowledge. I learned about square foot gardening from John Barkey (whose grandfather started the general store that caused the town of Barkeyville, PA, to be named after him – a town we pass every trip to Nana + Papa’s house). I’m a total convert to this method, and now my little guy and I plan out our squares and replant each one as we harvest from it. I gave him four squares to plant flowers in, and he picks a mini-vaseful every week for our table. He pops sun gold cherry tomatoes in his mouth – he likes them “straight from the vine.” He chats with the other gardeners. There are other kids there sometimes, other times we see the pastor of the church or some of the older gardeners who are like extra grandparents. My little guy peppers them with questions about what they’re growing, or observes “it looks like you’re having problems with your zucchini – might be powdery mildew.” He’s really into it.
Community gardens are popping up all over (there are over 200 in my county), and they’re generally very reasonable to join. Now is the time to look into finding one to join for next spring.
Interested in starting your own community garden? You may be able to find a community sponsor or funding from your city to get one going. Our city sells unused plots for cheap, as long as the new owner improves or beautifies them. They have a website for how to start a community garden here. The city of Cleveland offers community gardens supplies and education. Look around for land that seems be in disuse, and approach your city about helping to turn it into a garden.
In an urban area? Think creatively. My sister’s apartment building in Providence started a raised-bed garden on their roof, and they got a great harvest. In Seattle, a group built a 30,000 sq ft community garden on top of a parking garage. If that’s too ambitious, try this: one block in our neighborhood planted window boxes out near the street in their yards, for sharing with their neighbors. You need a sprig of basil? Come pick one. I need a cucumber? I’ll go down the street and grab one. It’s a beautiful thing, how gardens bring out the generosity in people.
Now all I need is one of these to get me through the winter.