Coordinating the Communal Community Garden

(say that ten times fast!)

Community gardens are about community, right? More often than not, community gardens are divided into smaller plots, in which individuals or families can rent a personal space for the growing season. But some gardeners prefer a more collective effort, where one big plot of land is worked cooperatively by the community. These communal gardens are a great idea in theory, but do they work?

NPR recently aired a story on their radio show All Things Considered where they discussed this issue. They shared some instances where the communal-style garden was a success for the community, but also explained how these gardens oftentimes fail. The main reason for failure? Community members lacked the time or commitment to maintain the garden.

community gardens boston, mass.

Jenn from Friends of Burlington Gardens told me about a community garden site here in Burlington that had tried to coordinate a communal plot. The garden has since switched to individual plots. The biggest reason for quitting the communal garden approach might surprise you… 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 that others might need more, and so food rotted on the vine!

So, whether food doesn’t grow because there are not enough people committed to garden maintenance… or because people are shy about reaping the benefits of their hard work… the communal-style garden is not so popular. I prefer to have my own small garden plot because it feels less complicated. I still want to mingle with my neighbors and meet others in my community, but maybe I can do this well enough without the communal style plot.

How do you prefer to garden? Do you rent your own garden plot? Do you share a communal plot? Or do you have a private garden at home?

What Le(a)d me to Think About Cold Frames…

Here in Burlington, Vermont, we are lucky to have the resource ReSOURCE, which is a nonprofit that reuses and recycles goods that might otherwise be thrown out. In addition to re-selling some items (such as my coffee table and some dishes), the organization has a branch called ReBUILD, which finds a home for old building materials – either by re-selling the raw materials, or by creating a new product such as these gorgeous cutting boards:

On a recent visit to Friends of Burlington Gardens, I found out that ReBUILD is also selling cold frames made from recycled window frames… ‘What a fantastic idea – how nice to see more affordable resources for gardening!’ I thought, and so did Jess… until she decided to ask if the window frames were coated in lead paint.

The clerk said it was quite possible they were. Yikes. Lead is a serious problem for anyone, but it’s an especially large health risk for young children as it can affect development of the nervous system. Not only could a child be at risk through direct contact with the lead (say, if they touch or eat this sweet-tasting paint), but this cold frame would also leach lead into the soil and into the food we eat.

The clerk added that a flyer with information on reused materials and lead exposure was available to customers who purchased the cold frames… but how many customers do you suppose actually read these warnings? Jess has since been in touch with ReBUILD, and I don’t doubt they’ll recognize the mistake and address this matter quickly.

This is an issue beyond one organization. After hearing about ReBUILD’s toxic mistake, I was curious how much the DIY gardeners considered this same health risk. In some websites giving directions for building your own cold frame, such as this one, the authors have been thoughtful in explaining safe building materials:

…But not every website on DIY cold frames will remind you of this warning. I could find any warning within the University of Missouri Extension’s detailed directions for building a cold frame.

Lead exposure is a serious health issue, and yet I would argue, based on the ReBUILD story and my visits to several DIY websites, that we expect it’s on the consumer to watch out for lead exposure. If you buy a lead-laden cold frame or building supplies and plop that structure into your garden, it’s your own fault you were exposed to poison. Certainly, there are many, many resources available on lead risk and safely removing lead from a home in Vermont and from the EPA. But does that make it okay to sell a product that is almost undoubtedly going to result in lead exposure?

I’m not a public health expert, but I suspect that the greater majority of people at least understand this: lead is detrimental to health. But are you 100% confident when you purchase reused materials or a product made from reused materials that it is not coated in lead paint?

So, at the same time that we want to promote the health of our communities by increasing gardening activity and by working with affordable, reused materials, how do we be more conscious of the health risks? Do you think we need to place more liability on those who sell products or building materials containing lead? I’d love your feedback on this. And also consider that many DIY-ers will collect materials from yard sales and antique stores… maybe it is better to just leave it up to the consumer to figure it all out?

FN 3/26

Look Kids…Vegetables are Cool! Just Give ‘Em a Try!

As the rates of childhood obesity in the U.S. rise, nutrition and public health experts continue to advocate that children increase their fruit and vegetable consumption in place of those calorie-dense junk foods. Garden programs, as well as other programs targeted at kids, often have this same goal, but the hardest step may be getting over that first hump: getting a child to just at least TRY a taste of the new food.

veggies

veggies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed, researchers have shown that children are more likely to eat a food if they are repeatedly exposed to it through repeated taste tests. So, while we grow lots of spinach and kale and carrots in the garden, how do we get kids to try that first bite?

One way we can do this is by modeling the behavior. Social Learning Theory, a theory frequently adopted in school interventions that promote fruit and veggie consumption, is based on the idea that we learn behaviors by watching how others act in situations. (A great read on this theory in this book.) So, for instance, if I see someone eating a bowl of brussel sprouts on a few occasions, I will absorb this information and imagine myself eating brussel sprouts. What’s more, if I see someone eating brussel sprouts AND enjoying eating those sprouts, I am more inclined to imagine and believe that I too will enjoy eating brussel sprouts, if I’m ever in a similar situation where I’m offered that food.

So, how can we effectively model eating vegetables? I found an excellent example on Youtube! In Eric Herman‘s music video, he shows that even those who are hesitant to eat vegetables might learn to love them once they try them. The video starts with Eric skeptically taking a bite out of a carrot, surprised to find he enjoys it. He repeats this with a green bean “cause my mother said I should [eat green beans],” and then a beet, showing that not only will someone like carrots once they try the food, but that trying carrots may lead to trying other vegetables which that person will also turn out to like.

The more Eric tries of different vegetables, the more “crazy over vegetables” he becomes, and this extreme appetite for vegetables is portrayed as adventuresome, goofy, and absolutely fun. At the same time, the character is portrayed as a cool dude himself after eating his vegetables – rocking out on his guitar while coasting in a grocery cart – which suggests others might also become super-hip as a result of trying vegetables.

Does the music video actually work?? The real test would be to check in with the young children who watch this video and see if it results in any changes in behavior. In comparison to many of the corny (yes, pun intended) videos out there that encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables, this rock video is much more modern. I want to be like Eric after watching this video because he is so entertaining. So, if Social Learning Theory really works, I think this is the kind of video that would actually catch kids’ attention and deliver an effective message. Anyone have vegetable-phobic kids at home who could test the video?

WP 3/23

The Dirty Life – More Thoughts on Germs

And so the conversation on hygiene continues! How much of germophobes are we?

This week, while at Friends of Burlington Gardens, the small talk in the office turned to the topic of compost. How do you clean out those pesky compost buckets? This is a hot topic as the weather gets warmer… I think the little critters in my food scrap bin are multiplying a little bit faster now that we’re moving into spring, turning my produce ends into a fragrant pile of funk…

Compost Bin

Image via Wikipedia

Jenn, one of the coordinators at FBG, admitted she is a bit of a germophobe herself, as she and others in the office chatted about the best ways to wipe, rinse, or otherwise clean out the home compost container. A visiting volunteer added that those germs may make  our immune systems stronger, but admitted that she, too, had that germophobe spirit and was adamant about hand washing, especially when working with kids.

So what is our deal with these invisible microbes? I have been enjoying a little reading of sociologist Deborah Lupton‘s work for some insight on our relationship with germs. Lupton argues that we fear the entrance of anything foreign into the body – such as a food we have never tried before. For instance, most of us who have grown up in a westernized culture would likely be uncomfortable eating grasshoppers because we feel anxious and unsure about the effect this foreign product would have on our bodies. Lupton would say we have fear and anxiety over the risk of this food compromising the body, that we regard the body as this sacred vessel that is vulnerable to the outside world whenever we introduce any exogenous substance – such as food.

There exists a fine line between a slightly over-ripe, semi-fermented food that we regard as safe and edible, and a food which is rotten and could possibly make us feel sick. Are those leftovers from last week still okay to eat? Everyone’s definitions of safe and unsafe food are a little different.

Similarly, the layers of food decay that have caked onto the compost bin are perceived as more of a health risk by some than others. This idea that I am applying to the compost bin may not suit the microbiologist who can physically measure bacterial counts to decide relative health risk, but, for the rest of us who rely on a less sophisticated assessment, would you agree that compost looks a little more “germ-y” and threatening as a result of the food appearing increasingly foreign and unfamiliar? And, if not, I would love to hear your great theory on why some of us get so grossed out by our food scraps!

FN 3/19

Master Gardeners to Master Your Community Garden

Looking for advice on the community garden scene? Need suggestions on what to grow? Not sure how to grow it? Wondering when to start those seeds in the greenhouse or the garden?

Community Garden

Community Garden (Photo credit: Plan for Opportunity)

These are all excellent questions for a garden guru … how about your local Master Gardeners?

Every state may have slightly different requirements for their Master Gardeners-in-training to complete, but there is usually a volunteer component which a Master Gardener would love to fulfill as part of your garden program.

The American Horticultural Society offers links to Master Gardener programs in each state in the US (as well as programs in Canada) which you can find here. The University of Vermont is the coordinator for my local chapter, and these gardening experts have played a role in many of the community and school community gardens in Vermont.

But don’t expect that you can switch to auto-pilot just because you get connected with a Master Gardener. Last week, I had the opportunity to review an evaluation of school and community gardens that received assistance through Friends of Burlington Gardens. According to the report, several of the garden programs enlisted the help of a Master Gardener, but some of the gardens were more pleased with this relationship than others.

Why? It may be the result of too little direction provided to the Master Gardener. Without a defined role, how can these experts know where they should dig in?

Without clarifying the role of a Master Gardener – or any type of volunteer – that person’s unique abilities may never be known and benefited from. This communication about the expectations of the volunteer is needed by both parties. We all have some amazing resources in our communities which we won’t effectively utilize if we don’t ever sit down to figure out what those resources are.

Garden Hygiene?

English: A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

We want kids to optimize their health by eating fresh produce from the garden, but should we be concerned about microscopic germs creeping in the soil?

During my most recent visit with the Friends of Burlington Gardens, the director met with Phil*, a representative from a well-known and respected nonprofit. Phil is in the process of planning a fundraising event where as many as three-thousand people would be asked to each plant an individual flower or vegetable seed in their provided container. For this big event, Phil plans to collect donations of seeds and soil and provide a unique growing container. With the supplies mostly lined up, he visited Friends of Burlington Gardens to ask for help with the logistics of actually getting three-thousand people to sow their seeds in their containers. Similar to a previous seed-starting event I posted about earlier, Phil is looking for help to direct children and adults on how to plant their seeds at soil stations set up at the event.

One of Phil’s logistical concerns was sanitation. How would three-thousand people wash their hands after getting muddied up from the soil? Besides a little dirt under the fingernails, Phil commented that his co-workers – less comfortable with gardening and getting down in the dirt – had been concerned about how hygienic or sanitary this might be and wondered how they might be able to set up hand-washing stations in the park where the event was to be held.

Dirty soil. I had not thought much about this before. It is true that soil is loaded with microbes – some more friendly than others – so how concerned should this event be with providing water and soap to the participants after they plant the seed starters?

Phil added that he was less concerned about the sanitation issue himself, so really he was bringing this up more on the behalf of his co-workers, but the Friends of Burlington Gardens director supported his idea. Hand washing stations make sense for such a large crowd. Plus, they could be used to rinse out the planting containers as well.

I agree with Phil and the director that hand washing stations would be appreciated simply because this will be such a large event. But it got me thinking about the response Phil’s co-workers had to gardening and the less obvious matter they may have been expressing… In the grand scheme of things, how concerned should we be about children’s health and sanitation when playing in the dirt?

If you ask me, a little dirt won’t hurt. Some exposure to germs is important for building up that natural immunity. But should I be sympathetic to those who are more germophobic? Certainly, there are cases where the soil might be poorer quality and truly unsafe for growing food. (TLC Home shares some tips on remedying polluted soil in these scenarios.) Not all soil is the same…

So for those who might be less comfortable with a little dirt under the fingernails, are there ways we should try to make the gardening experience more hygienic and ‘clean’? Or do you think getting dirty and grubby is a necessary rite of passage for the gardener? I would love your thoughts on this, as well as suggestions for a more hygienic dirtiness!

*name changed

FN 3/12

Enough Seeds to Go Around

Nothing BEETS sorting seeds, I’m sure you all MUSTa-heARD! It really brings me into a PEAS-ful state of mind…!

And so this is how I broke out into vegetable puns this past week while visiting Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG). After studying biochemical pathways and nutrition jargon, nothing could have been more enjoyable to me than my time sorting and labeling seed packets. During the past few weeks, FBG has coordinated a few workshops and events for the community to swap seeds, donated by area businesses. After these events, there were still several boxes of seeds remaining, which were to be used by the FBG’s summer garden program, as well as by other school and community gardens around the state.

Among the seeds I sorted was a large selection of peas, green beans, winter squash, sprouts, pumpkins, summer squash, okra, and mustard greens. I tidied up a limited supply of celery, tomatoes, leeks, cauliflower, and eggplant. We also had an overflowing box of flower seeds, which the director decided was not even worth attempting to organize.

In the upcoming weeks, garden coordinators will be invited to rummage through these seeds and select some to put towards their own gardens. Without having thought to ask, my feeling is that these seeds are a surprise ‘bonus’ which garden programs get to take advantage of while planting their gardens this year. Other popular favorites, such as kale and salad greens and broccoli and carrots, may be supplied through other donations, or purchased through the garden’s personal budget.

How wonderful it is to see these excess seeds get passed on to other gardeners. Can you think of the number of times you might buy a packet of seeds and only use one-fourth or half of the contents? There are so many plant varieties to try, and it is so fun to have garden of many subtle flavors…

Finding a local seed swap, or at least a place to donate excess seeds, is a sensible way to have a diverse garden, prevent waste, and maybe make a few friends in the community, while you’re at it!

I would love to hear how others plan their seed purchases and any seed-sharing stories!