The Abandoned Garden

After some frost this weekend, I’m hoping we’re finally over the last leg of cold weather and that I can start planting next weekend. My roommates and I visited our community garden plot yesterday for our own orientation and had a great time chatting about growing plans while we did some weeding. We have some very ambitious plans for our garden… after seeing the size of our 30×20 plot yesterday, we asked our garden coordinator about renting a second plot… LOTS of planting space! Easier said than done I know, so hopefully we can keep up with all the work we have ahead of us.

Glorious piles of packets of seeds!

One of the rules at our community garden is that raised garden beds can be no more than about 8″ higher than the rest of the garden. There are two reasons for this: 1) deep trenches in the garden, if not smoothed back out well enough at the end of the growing season, will be difficult to drive the tiller through come next year… and 2) if the garden gets overgrown because it is abandoned, it will be a safety hazard for those who walk through that space in an attempt to salvage the garden plot.

These rules make sense to me, and, actually, I suppose we still could create some shorter raised beds if we wanted to, but what’s more interesting here is that the garden committee anticipates (and has a plan to deal with) garden abandoners. Garden abandoners… I hadn’t really thought about this – these are the garden renters who seem to disappear mid-season, Continue reading

Schools and Kids’ Health: Take Two

Yesterday, I started to discuss the role of schools in children’s diets. While we see some wonderful school-based programming such as teaching gardens that promote children’s health, is it up to the schools to direct children’s eating habits? I think getting kids to garden is a great idea, and possibly a way to get kids to eat higher-quality diets. But as schools continue to offer programs such as this, and as schools continue to provide a large percentage of children’s daily diets, how responsible should they really be for their students’ health outcomes and dietary habits?

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch.

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More and more, I believe the responsibility for children’s health must fall in the hands of schools. In the right school district, a child now could potentially eat all meals at school… There’s the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, snack programs like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Afterschool Snack Program… and now some schools offer dinner too! On top of that, there may be snack bars, school stores, and vending machines available at school. If a child has so many opportunities to make eating decisions during the school day, Continue reading

The Organic-versus-Conventional Debate

Community gardening and organic practices can go hand-in-hand. In several of the garden spaces available in my city, restrictions have been placed on growing practices to avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically-modified seeds. But how important is it that my community garden support organic gardening?

Being an organic gardener myself, I wanted to see what arguments have been made opposing organic growing. Interested in the angle of conventional and GM-supporting farmers, I looked to the corporation that epitomizes anti-organic: Monsanto.

The Miracle-Maker

In a short article on the Monsanto website titled, “Building a World Without Hunger,” the author, Monsanto Executive Communications Manager Rachel Thimangu, reports on a panel discussion during the Milken Institute Global Conference which considered the role of organic farming in the larger scheme of addressing world hunger. Thimangu quotes Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, weighing in on the debate of organic versus conventional:

” ‘[You’ve] got to have technologies that allow additional production…That means you’ve got to not be afraid of technology.

‘We’re going to have community gardens. We’re going to have a lot of food grown locally. But, overwhelmingly, that’s not going to solve the problem of hunger in this world. We’ve got to produce more food.’ “

Thimangu’s article suggests we should consider the limitations of organic gardening because they cannot solve our issues of world hunger, and so we need to emphasize more biotechnology.

The more subtle message: Organic gardening is over-rated.

Well, wait a second now – let’s consider the way in which Thimangu presents the issue of organic versus conventional. Heiss argues in her article on an advertising campaign for high-fructose corn syrup that the corporation can use its communication and advertising strategies to allow only a small group of stakeholders to partake in the discussion about our food.

In this case, the stakeholders are the experts on global food security. All of us small-scale, organic community gardeners are out of the loop. What do we know about global hunger? Thimangu’s article promoting conventional growing insinuates the other issues we care about (like pesticide impact on ecosystems) are not anywhere near as important.

In my hometown, not all community gardens are strictly organic. Whether or not you agree with Monsanto’s angle that conventional growing can solve food security, perhaps we can all agree on this: The debate is incomplete when we avoid discussing the other environmental and health issues related to gardening methods.

WP 3/1

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