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

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