Four Things in Four Years
What I’ve Learned as the Leader of a Community Garden.
Lead by example.
Teach by doing. That includes making mistakes (also known as learning by doing). Mistakes equal learning. And if you are the garden leader, you might as well make your mistakes publicly so everyone can share the memorable lesson. When we decided to plant half of the garden with watermelons one summer, the vines grew and grew… and only set a few fruit, which soon stopped growing. Summer is NOT the season for melons in southwest Florida. It was a big mistake. We were depressed, and lost a lot of time we could have spent improving the soil. But it was a big enough mistake that we won’t be making it again!
I don’t ask anyone to do anything that I would not do myself. The rains in southwest Florida are heavy in summer, and often punctuated by drought. In a casual conversation with a biologist who lives in our town, I learned that our habit of letting the garden “rest” in the summer was seriously hurting our soil health. We were losing the life in our soil every time we let it dry out during a drought. During those periods, many helpful microbes, and all the beneficial insects and invertebrates (earthworms) would die out. So this summer, even though we had all gotten used to taking our break along with the commercial farmers in our county, we decided we would keep the soil watered. Well, ‘we’ means me and one other motivated gardener who happened to be a science teacher on her summer off. So we got out there. And you know, the bugs weren’t as bad as I thought.
Put on sunscreen and go water with the leaky hose, when it’s mosquito season, and you’re still a few fundraisers away from getting that drip irrigation. Weed those abandoned beds that aren’t ‘yours’. Again. Lead by example.
This is easier for me now that we have a community garden. There was a time (five years ago today) that we did not have one. If you don’t already have a community garden in your life, and you’re reading this thinking, “I’ll just wait for someone else to start a community garden,” what if you’re wrong, and no one does? So ‘doing something’ might mean taking the first step to create your community garden. Wherever you are in the process, do the next thing. Even if it turns out to be wrong. In his book You Can Farm, Joel Salatin says, whenever someone asks him about how to get started farming, he responds with ‘What are you doing NOW?’
Do something small, messy, boring, imperfect, fun, quick, or just ‘doable right now’. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes I walk over to the garden and ask ‘What can I do to make it look really different here? Move plants around, weed?’ Even delayed gratification, like compost tea and mulch, appeal to me because I imagine how the garden will look later. If not much is happening in the garden, make it look like something is happening, and then it will be happening. When you start, that’s your ‘before’ picture. What do you want your ‘after’ picture to look like? Do that. Or make a move towards that. (Really, take photos all the time, because every ‘after’ morphs into a ‘before’.) My action-oriented husband (he helped me found the garden or we’d still be waiting for someone else to start) reminds me: When it’s unclear what to do next, don’t get stuck in the planning and prioritizing; just be in the garden, with your gloves on, ready. Show up. Many mornings, I start with a relaxed inspection, a little weeding, some planning and worrying, turn the compost, make a phone call, take some photos, let one thing lead to another. Momentum starts with a moment.
Try things, read (online and off), talk to everyone (the grocery store produce guy, the farmers at the market, the old ladies in your neighborhood who take pride in their yards, the biology students, anyone and everyone), take classes, take time in the garden, and take notes!
I’m ready to record with whatever feels right: iPhone apps, a binder full of folders and blank copies of the garden map, a legal pad on a clipboard with a pencil on a string, and a pocket memo pad. Use a system that you like. The method is not as important as being able to find the info again later on. (I like the cross-platform app Evernote, because you can file away all kinds of media, and then search for any word anywhere, even within a photo. I often take pics of notes from meetings and impromptu planning sketches in the garden, etc.)
Don’t hold back. Be generous.
After a few years of running the garden, I’m better at giving my time and energy freely and not holding back resources for the wrong reasons. With limited cash, dwindling community, rumors of ‘the axe’ from the landowner, dropout gardeners, etc., there is always plenty to be anxious, discouraged, or uptight about. If I could turn the clock back to 2008, I’d focus on the small successes and then give it my all, all the time. I am not saying spend rashly, ask too much from your team, step on your landlord’s toes, and everything will be OK. When I held back because I was afraid we would lose our garden site, I found myself cutting back on seeds, talking less about the garden, not inviting new people, putting off prodding and weeding, canceling plans for events. I was afraid of using things up. But as a result, the garden looked half baked, maybe unloved. Skip this step in your learning process if you can! Go for it, be generous with yourself and whatever you have at your disposal. (Your worst-case scenario might be a spectacular fail which would free you to start over.) Being generous also means: help people out (when their beds get weedy, when they are pregnant and watering gets difficult, when they get tired or cranky, or lose patience, or when their hearing starts to go.) Just help, because you will learn about people and your garden this way, and because they need it, and because it will be easier to ask for help when you’ve been there to give it.
Do you work in a community garden? Have you thought about starting your own?
Photo Credit: Monica Dix
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