One of the Perks of Joining a Community Garden Plot

This weekend, in anticipation for digging into my own garden plot, I attended an event on cold frame building and season extension at one of the community gardens in town. Well… actually, the workshop had to be rescheduled because the workshop leader wasn’t able to make it…

But if you ask me, that didn’t really even matter. While I was interested in learning about cold frames, I was also attending simply because I wanted to see this community garden space and meet other gardeners.

And, on that note, the workshop actually had a pretty small turnout… there were four of us present – two of whom were assisting with the event – which means really just me and one other person – Natalie* – were officially attending the workshop.

I have to admit that generally, when I think about who attends these kinds of workshops, I expect to see that stereotypical experienced gardener who arrives in grungy jeans and sneakers with calloused hands. Natalie didn’t fit this description at all with her manicured nails, sunglasses, and a short latte cup. Having moved to Vermont just recently from the South where there is a year-round growing season, I think Natalie’s motivation for attending the workshop was similar to my own: she just wanted to meet other gardeners and learn a few things as she started her own community garden plot.

Ground cherry seeds in their tomatillo-like pods

And while the workshop didn’t happen, Natalie and I still were offered some great resources. Natalie was set up with a trowel, a pot, and a little direction for transplanting some mint which she took home, and then we were both introduced to ground cherries – which are best described as a small, pineapple-like relative to the cherry tomato. Seed pods from last year’s ground cherries littered a few of the garden beds, and I stuffed a big handful of these into my coat pocket.

I’m getting super-excited to start some seeds in my own community garden plot this spring, and I’m thankful to be splitting it with my boyfriend and my friend so we can share the workload and garden knowledge. Natalie, on the other hand, will be managing her own plot. My first thought about running my own plot was, “Ugh, what a load of work, and do I really know enough about gardening to pull this off?” But after the spontaneous assistance from other community gardeners, I think I’m starting to get a sense of the meaning of the “community” in community gardening. Although it might initially feel more challenging to maintain a plot if you’re newer to the garden scene, there are plenty of resources available within the gardening network to ensure your hard work returns a fruitful harvest.

*Name changed

FN 4/9

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

Burlington has no beef with pink slime, but are the kids aware? (Read this if you’re out of the loop on the debate about pink slime in school lunch beef)

Dansk: Hakket oksekød English: Ground beef

As the local food movement continues to gain momentum across the country, people are ever more interested in knowing where their food comes from… but local food isn’t always promoted clearly. While 42% of Middlebury College students mistakenly thought the majority of meat served in their dining program was locally sourced (less than 1% actually is), while I bet many students in the Burlington School District have no idea that their lunch program now purchases thousands of pounds of local beef each year. Wow! How do we get the word out?

This hot topic of ground beef quality and pink slime sounds like a bit of a tangent to kids’ gardening programs, but here’s what they all have in common: these programs are all looking (and sometimes lacking)the clear communication to explain their successful efforts. Can some simple, homemade signs help?

During a recent meeting at Friends of Burlington Gardens, the conversation jumped rapidly between planning several summer programs and activities, but the discussion seemed to cycle around this chorus: We need to make good signs for that.

The song went something like this:

  • Want to make children learning to speak English more comfortable in the garden? Let’s make some signs in the gardens for various plants that are written in different languages.
  • Want to make students more aware of the greenhouse activities at their high school and encourage them to join? How about we put up signs around campus to say what we’re doing? Let’s have some artsy students come up with a sign and maybe a motto we can display outside the greenhouse.
  • Want to show the community the flourishing school garden in its prime? We should get lots of good signage…I wonder who has nice handwriting?

A wealth of signs piled in the closet at FBG

Signs are essential for communicating what’s happening in the land of garden education – they can decorate the garden site and give kids a way to contribute – but they also can be a marketing tool used to recruit students and showcase successes for the community. While the cardboard signs handwritten in marker and those hand-painted wooden signs might be kind of old-school, I think they’re an appropriate way to deliver these messages. Tweeting to the world or putting up a Facebook page about the garden might happen too, but simple signage is intimate and personalized for the immediate community. What are the ways that members of your local food system get the message out about the good work they’re doing? Are handmade signs part of their marketing toolkit?

FN 4/2

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?

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.

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!

Grant Money Not Taken for Granted

Every growing season I re-learn the same lesson: a garden takes more effort than simply sowing a seed. It’s easy to get convinced otherwise because nature handles most of the work. Many plants (particularly weeds) thrive without the help of a green thumb in the presence of the basics: sunlight, soil and water. But it is silly to think a garden can succeed without more input and labor and resources. For one thing, it takes human energy to tug out those thriving weeds that threaten to steal prime real estate from my vegetable crop.

That said, it is no surprise that school and community gardens are always in search of resources to sustain their own garden programs – whether they receive grant money and cash donations, garden supplies, or volunteer labor. One of the goals of Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) is to coordinate funding for these gardens through mini-grants, which may be used to purchase supplies such as shovels and rakes and mulch, or to pay salaries to garden coordinators, among other needs.

But how can FBG coordinate these grants, in addition to coordinating other events, and funding their own programs? Grants are the sustenance of this organization. I had never noticed it before, but the FBG’s director pointed out the  whiteboard calendars hidden behind the entry of their small office. Short notes have been scribbled on the four-month calendar in various colors. She pointed out the days with notes written in red, which signified due dates for grant applications.

I counted four to six dates with the red handwriting within each of the months. Seriously? Four to six grant applications to complete per month during the busy season for garden planning?

Sure, I suspected FBG relied heavily on grants, but I couldn’t believe this two-person team had so many grant applications to keep track of! The director explained that FBG generally receives about 60% of the grants they apply to, so they use this estimate to plan their budget for the upcoming summer and fall. This is shaky for the organization, since the plans they create now bank on this estimated revenue. How will they manage if they receive less money?

While FBG also continues efforts for fundraising and approaches businesses for garden supply donations, the year-to-year success of the organization will continue to be funded by grant money based on the previous year’s success.

While it is surely stressful and time-intensive for FBG to complete these applications, I didn’t get the sense that the director was bothered by this process. In addition to the most obvious benefit of completing these applications – funding – this is an opportunity for the program to constantly evaluate itself. By discussing the program’s successes and failures in grant applications, I bet FBG has a more balanced view of their organization, and also more foresight into best strategies for the future garden seasons.

FN 3/5

Does Gardening Increase Fruit and Vegetable Intake?

Do gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than their counterparts? The research says, “Yes!” but notes certain types of gardeners consume more than others.

Jackie Brinkman posted on the UCDenver Blog about a research study published in the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Brinkman summarizes the research findings:

“[This] research has shown that places such as community gardens matter in terms of neighborhood quality and people’s health…More than 50% of gardeners meet national guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake compared to 25% of non-gardeners.”

This research was very intriguing to me, and so I took a look at the original article to learn more. As a blogger attempting to summarize key points from this study, Brinkman’s post is a fairly accurate portrayal of the original research. However, Brinkman does not clarify what kinds of gardeners appear to benefit most from gardening. The researcher’s results showed the 56% of community gardeners met the national recommendations of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but – contrary to Brinkman’s post – less than 50% of home gardeners met this mark. Only 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners reported consuming the recommended five or more servings.

Scholars Fineburg and Rowe write in their commentary how those of us who relay information to the public can ensure we effectively communicate the story. Whether we are bloggers or university researchers, our role as conveyors of health information must be exercised with caution to ensure information is accurate and accessible to the audience. One of the guidelines Fineburg and Rowe suggest all messengers follow is to avoid simplifying the facts. In this case, blogger Brinkman has shared that gardeners consume more fruits and vegetables, but she fails to note what kind of gardeners are benefitting most: those who are growing in community plots.

Also consider the context of this study: because this study was conducted among urban adults, we cannot yet say what role the community garden may have for children, or how health habits may differ for those in rural communities.

So what should we take away from this study? While continued research will need to affirm these findings, this study shows that, while gardening in any form is associated with eating more fruits and veggies, our dietary habits might be more positively influenced through the connections we build within our communities. Find a neighbor and get digging!

WP 3/1