Moving a Community Garden
We think of gardens as permanent marks we make on our land. “We put down roots,” means we are going to stay. Plants don’t move.
But sometimes a garden has to move.
Can you keep your soil, your trees and vines? Can it be done?
I am the leader of our community garden that has a handful of active gardeners, 22 raised beds, a compost bin, and a few tools. We moved.
After one mysterious message ‘about the garden’ left for me (a message left in person with a cook at the cafe we own, a message which I almost did not get), I put together the prefix on the phone number and a contact name from a long-forgotten catering gig, and I returned the call. With my stomach in knots. This wasn’t just another person stopping by the coffeehouse and asking about joining the garden. It was ‘the call.’ I returned the call and left a message, but I never got a call or email again.
When I first heard rumors that our garden was closing, I wasn’t surprised. Our shabby garden never really fit in. The location was not ideal for us or for the small university around which our town is centered. Back at the beginning, we had asked about other sites, but when the offer became ‘take it or leave it,’ we agreed. From that day I suspected we would be relocating someday.
It never hurts to consider, even briefly, that you might have to move your garden someday, so make some choices that give you flexibility like raised beds, containers, and maybe even a hydroponics setup.”
The rumors continued for 18 months. I quickly realized that since university management had changed, and no one was Googling us, no one even knew that I was the coordinator. Even as we made big efforts to make the garden more beautiful, I felt I had to walk on eggshells. Maybe I should have made phone calls, but since university administrators clearly had bigger fish to fry, I decided to focus on making the garden prettier, more symmetrical, more about landscape and less about food (and less about weeds!) until we might finally surface on someone’s radar again. I snapped photos of the garden and posted them on Facebook, Instagram, and Foursquare. I hosted events and field trips. I tweeted and I blogged. I thought maybe if the garden took on a more mainstream beauty and meaning, there would be some incentive to not pull the rug out from under a few enthusiastic gardeners, including several members of the university staff.
And all through the process of us actually getting the boot, I was not formally contacted. Not once.
Not that we were owed anything, our agreement was a handshake with a since-retired administrator. It was all a gift from the university; the sunny space, the water, the mowing, initial help from an expert assigned to our project, and occasional help with maintenance.
After discussing the situation, a few veteran garden members and I decided to go ahead and plan a move on our own terms. I applied for a small grant to help us move the garden to our local k-12 school. A staffer at the school was also pulling for this. The school’s principal had not agreed yet, but why not try? I knew that parents would find it easier to get involved if the garden was right where their kids would be playing sports, and of course the teachers and students could just step outside to get involved.
And then we caught an important break.
My husband, who also helped found the garden with me in 2008, happened to be working part-time in the very department of the university which would be responsible for removing our garden from its original site. It was apparently all going to a landfill, but he stepped in.
We saved all that soil we had improved with compost, manure, mulch, and minerals. We saved the lumber our dues had bought and our sweat had assembled. We even saved many plants.
The operations department moved our soil and lumber for us after giving us some time to harvest and temporarily transplant some of our crops.
After we dropped off the bed frames at our new site it was clear we needed a new configuration, so I sketched out a new layout on the back of an old garden flyer with a hotel pen from the cup holder of my car.
We laid them out. This time, I had mixed feelings: excited to start fresh and with so much support, and sad that I had failed to make it work at the old site. At first, the empty garden beds looked like coffins. The first time we had to build the bed frames, we had the help of 25 high school-aged volunteers for a total of 24 hours over two weeks. This time, it took a lot longer to get everything laid out and filled and we still need to order more soil, repair three frames and plant, plant, plant!
BUT, we saved our garden.
It never hurts to consider, even briefly, that you might have to move your garden someday, so make some choices that give you flexibility like raised beds, containers, and maybe even a hydroponics setup. Also consider is it worth moving, and if so, what moves and what stays? Could your neighbor use some herbs or a compost bin? Will it be worth as much to you in the new location? Can you interest the new landowner in compensating you for some or all of it? For example, fruit trees could be an attractive upgrade for your landlord.
Schedule and plan. Take into account not only your moving plans, but the seasons and best times for different tasks in the garden. Can you move between harvest and planting? Learn all you can about your plants and whether they’ll take well to transplanting. Maybe when you arrive, it will be easiest to solarize or compost, rather than plant crops.
Carry out your plan, but be ready to adjust and adapt.
I spent Thanksgiving morning weeding, watering, and photographing the garden in its old site, even though I was fairly certain most of those plants wouldn’t see the new year, except as compost. It was bittersweet.
So, don’t forget the emotional stuff. You will likely experience feelings of loss for the plants, for a place, or relationships. You’ve invested yourself. Remember that you can make room for the new and for expansion. Talk, be philosophical, ask for help, don’t burn bridges, give things away, say thank you, and remember to say goodbye.
Have you ever had to move your garden? What was the most important thing you had to do?
Photo Credit: Monica Dix
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