Garden Planning: The Case of the Stolen Tomato

It’s still prime-time for skiing and plow trucks in the Northeast, but community garden plans are in full swing. Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) has been preparing for one of their youth gardening programs, and, after last weekend’s seed swap, many leftover seeds are available for the program to choose from. I spent close to two hours rummaging through these seeds and reorganizing them, and only made it through about one-third of the seeds!

So what are the best things to plant in a youth teaching garden? Any time I have planted a garden, my choices have been dictated by availability and impulse: my gardens were filled with whatever excess starters I received from farmer friends or the contents of seed packets with the most attractive illustrations. This can work just fine until I end up with a field of overgrown mizuna greens or baseball bat zucchinis.

Luckily, FBG is directed by wiser planners than me, who are more thoughtful about seed and starter selection. The grocery list of seeds for their youth program range from potatoes and onions and radishes to ground cherries and beets and various salad greens.

Perhaps what’s more interesting, however, is what the youth garden will not plant. No watermelons. No pumpkins. No corn. Why? It’s largely due to theft. The youth garden is planted on a large, two-acre plot proximal to low-income neighborhoods, and past experiences have shown these foods are most frequently stolen from the garden. While FBG have stopped planting some crops, they have gotten clever about others: while bright-red, vine-ripened tomatoes are an attractive and easy-to-spot steal, green zebra tomatoes are much less likely to be taken since it is more difficult to determine peak harvest time of this deceptively green-when-ripe fruit.

This is just one example of the tactics that will be employed by the coordinators of the youth program to prevent food vandalism by hungry neighbors. Certainly, these actions could be questioned morally. Should we be preventing the hungry from harvesting nutritious food they may not be able to afford? Can’t we just feed everyone with this garden?

I respect the perspective of the clever coordinator who has resorted to planting green tomatoes: “I can’t solve hunger…we’re not big enough.” FBG offers an amazing service to the community by teaching youth gardening practices and providing food for underserved teens and their families. Much of the food is also sold by these entrepreneurial teens, who bring their product to farmer’s markets. Profits support the program and wages for the teens.

It might feel contradictory to some to prevent the hungry neighboring community from harvesting the garden. I welcome your comments on this. As I see it, the priority of this program is to teach the youth job and life skills through their involvement in all aspects of farming, up through harvesting. Following this experience, I hope to see these youth return to area gardens and farms to help feed – and, better yet, teach – their hungry neighbors.

FN 2/27

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3 comments on “Garden Planning: The Case of the Stolen Tomato

  1. Anne says:

    That’s a really interesting and morally challenging dilemma for your organization! I certainly applaud your coordinator’s creativity in finding more theft-resistant plants to include in the garden. However, I also think there could be creative opportunities to engage the low-income community in this gardening project. Has the organization ever invited members of this community to serve as volunteers? Or, to help out with tasks around the garden? Perhaps students could sell their produce within the community at a reduced rate as part of a lesson on food insecurity? There used to be a really cool program in Columbus, OH called the “Veggie Van” – a community gardening organization used to drive into several economically disadvantaged areas and sell their vegetables their – sort of like how the ice cream man visited different neighborhoods. (or like a mini, mobile farmer’s market) Just a couple of ideas – I’d love to hear others!

  2. Anne, those are some great ideas for how the organization could emphasize selling to the local community. I have seen mobile farmer’s markets in the media before, and I wonder if anyone in my city has adopted this. The “Veggie Van” sounds very fun! Members of the greater community volunteer with the summer program, but I will have to look into the program further to find out how they may be working or could be working more closely with their hungry neighbors.

  3. […] the garden produced a bountiful amount of food that went un-harvested. While I have mentioned theft in gardens before, here is an example of just the opposite: no one wanted to be too greedy about taking food […]

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