Man in Overalls helps you #GrowYourGroceries!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Economy of Kale

If I'm not mistaken, this past summer, the universities' budgets in town were struck by 95 million dollars. Add to this the collapse of the housing boom and reductions in state government spending, and what you get is a Tallahassee economy heading for hard times. In fact, for many, times are already tough. This is our current reality.

In the midst of such a financial situation, does it make sense to food garden? Is it worth it to shell out a few extra bucks upfront to either a)hire someone to plant a garden for you or b)to dig, sweat, make a run to the seed store, and plant your own garden? If money is already tight, if we're facing a tough economy, is growing food a good idea?

Think for a moment about the places hardest hit economically over the last several decades. If I had to brainstorm such a list of US cities with the worst economic fortunes, I'd name towns like Flint, Michigan, Detroit, New Orleans and inner-cities in New Jersey.

Interestingly enough, in all of these places, folks are proactively planting backyard gardens, starting community gardens, and taking strides to re-create and re-network their local food systems.

For starters, take a look at a recent article in the New York Times about Flint, Michigan: "Amid Ruin of Flint, Seeing Hope in a Garden."

Flint, Michigan
"On one side of the fertile lot stands an abandoned house, stripped long ago for scrap. On the other side, another abandoned house, windows boarded, structure sagging. And diagonally across the street, two more abandoned houses, including one blackened by a fire maybe a year ago, maybe two. But on this lot, surrounded by desertion in the north end of Flint, the toughest city in America, collard greens sprout in verdant surprise...." read more...

Next, visit Mo-town Detroit just down the road from Flint. There, an organization named The Greening of Detroit is beautifying the city with gardens and trees... including a two acre community farm in Romanoski Park that includes a teaching pavilion, playground, and a fruit tree orchard. The farm itself is tucked in amidst a sugar maple grove, a 1-mile walking trail, soccer complex, and numerous athletic fields.

Next, consider New Orleans who continues to recover both physically and economically from Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans Food and Farm Network asks the questions: "What if you only had to walk a block or two to talk with your local farmer and your kids could see where food comes from and what a “real” farmer looks like. Remember the taste of a fresh tomato just off the vine, or salad greens picked first thing in the morning for dinner at night?"

Their website is worth quoting at length: "New Orleans Food and Farm Network envisions a city where everyone has access to fresh, healthy foods. One way to get there is by increasing the amount of food grown right here within our neighborhoods. In the last few decades we have lost sight of what’s possible to grow year round in our backyards, front yards, and climbing up our side yard fences. Our grandparents knew and they produced gorgeous tomatoes, bushels of okra, eggplant, mirliton, satsumas, grapefruits, broccoli and lettuce (to name a few).

"As our neighborhoods are rebuilt the vision of more fresh food and farmers markets seems to be a common desire among neighbors throughout the city. Weekly or monthly markets are showing up everywhere. What’s missing is the army of farmers needed to support the rapidly growing demand by chefs, retailers and consumers for local fruits and vegetables. "The Food & Farm Network recognizes this gap. For the past 6 months we’ve been talking with the handful of farmers currently growing in the city to see how we can support them in their efforts to turn their sites into models and the farmers themselves into mentors for the next generation."

Which is to say that folks in New Orleans-- in the midst of their continual recovery and economic hardship caused by 2005 Hurricane Katrina-- are strategizing to re-create their local food system.

Finally, Brick City Urban Farms is working in Newark, NJ. They grow veggies using the SPIN Farming (i.e. Small Plot INtensive farming) method on concrete and chemically contaminated vacant lots using Earthboxes. To read up on their work and to get a primer on SPIN farming, click here. Or, just watch the Youtube video below.

To wrap up, in times of continued economic stress, residents and organizations in Flint, Detroit, New Orleans and Newark are growing food for local consumption. The lesson, it seems, is that a rediscovery of our food raising potential makes sense when our wallets are thin; i.e. it's a good idea to start a garden.... right about... now.

(Okay, here's why: In a 4x10 raised bed, you can grow the equivalent of 40 kale plants. A month and a half after planting kale starts-- or collards, chard, mustards or turnips--from Gramlings, assuming adequate sunlight, you should be able to harvest four handfuls of kale per week... until sometime mid-April to early May. That means four handfuls of greens from mid December until May: 4.5 months or roughly 18 weeks. 4 handfuls x 18 weeks = 72 handfuls. Each handful of greens cost about a dollar and a half at Winn Dixie and roughly $3 for organic at New Leaf. So in six months, with one small raised-bed, you potentially can grow $216 worth of greens. That's what I call an economy of kale.)

PS- My raised-beds cost $200. In six months, you can grow back the expense. And then, of course, there's the next six months, and the next, and the next, and the next... You get the idea.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Little Note on the Weekend with Damayan

I spent this past weekend at Lichgate with the Damayan Garden Project to receive folks stopping by as part of the 2nd Annual New Leaf Farm Tour. Amidst guiding folks through the demo garden, talking about good soil and compost, encouraging folks to peruse the silent auction tables, pointing out the labyrinth, and providing snacks, we volunteers had a bit of time to brainstorm. One idea that came up was this: as an organization, Damayan could increase its notoriety and ability to encourage food gardening by attending neighborhood association meetings all over town with a standard presentation. Said presentation would highlight a) WHY we should garden; i.e. the reasons (economic, health, environmental, communal) for food gardening, b) HOW we can garden; i.e. models of home and community gardens, and lastly c) THE WAYS DAMAYAN CAN HELP get things rolling.

Thus, if you serve on a neighborhood board and would be interested in having Damayan present, please let me know-- or email Damayan directly: damayan at yourvillage dot com.

(Just in case you didn't know: The Damayan Garden Project is a Tallahassee non-profit that specializes in food gardening education and in helping to establish community gardens. As with most things these days, if you want to learn more, take a look at their website.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Tallahasseean Gothic"

"American Gothic" was painted by Grant Woods from 1930. The key components as you can clearly see are a farming couple, the pitchfork, and the background cottage "with a distinctive upper window." Notice, the man in overalls. According to Wikipedia, the painting "is one of the most familiar images in 20th century American art and one of the most parodied artworks within American popular culture."

You don't say.

Let's call it "Tallahasseean Gothic" staged from 2009. The key components as you can see are a food gardening couple, the pitchfork, and the background capital "with distinctive upper windows and dome." Notice, again, the man in overalls.

(...with major thanks to my partner in crime, Mary Elizabeth... and my mother who's behind the camera...)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bringing Garden Dreams to Fruition

A friend wrote me to ask, "Are you getting any business amidst all the 'awareness-raising' that you're doing?"

I am, I'm happy to report. Below is one garden project I worked on this past week: a food garden in Carol's backyard.

Carol wanted two raised beds with a small fence around them to keep her pups from digging up her winter greens. The day before I started digging, she called with a question: "Are you familiar with the Square Food Gardening (SFG) method?" "Yes," I responded,"more or less." Many people have called my attention to Mel Bartholomew's gardening approach over the years, and I'd just perused his website at length the week before. Additionally, without even knowing it, I'd been incorporating many of his ideas into my own practices in my home garden.

Carol offered me Bartholomew's book, which she'd purchased thirty years previously. "I wonder," Carol submitted, "if I could loan it to you over night, you could take a look, and then apply the principles in my garden when you install it tomorrow...?" I accepted the book and dug through it.

In addition to Bartholomew's fondness of a few extra soil amendments like vermiculite and peat moss, the major difference between SFG and other natural small-plot gardening methods (like biointensive) is the grid. SFG calls for a 1x1ft visual grid over the top of the soil to aid gardeners-- newbies and experienced, alike-- in intensive planting. The grid, Bartholomew argues, allows gardeners to easily manage a multitude of crops in a small space. Plus, the grid breaks the tendency to plant in rows, which, he says, is an inefficient spacing of plants.

Below is a close up of one of Carol's SFG beds complete with a grid made with twine. If I'm not mistaken, in this single raised-bed there are kale, chard, broccoli, red cabbage, rosemary, sage, dill, and thyme plants; snap-pea, radish and carrot seeds; plus a handful of shallots. Oh, plus beets and a couple squares planted with oats as a cover crop to fill vacant squres. And some flowers.

I received an email from Carol last night in which she wrote, "If I haven't told you how much I love my garden, let me tell you now. I LOVE MY GARDEN!"

So, to answer my friend on the topic of business: things are good.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Homecoming and NC Community Gardens

This past week, I made a trip up to North Carolina to my alma mater, Warren Wilson College for homecoming with two friends, fellow alums. Warren Wilson is a work college, which means that all students on campus have a 15-hour-per-week job. Most of the routine maintenance and tasks are performed by students. For example, there's a plumbing crew, a library crew, cafeteria (dish-washing) crew, etc. And, as there is a working farm and a three-acre garden on campus-- both which supply food to the dinning halls-- there are farm and garden student crews as well. I actually didn't work on either. Instead I spent two years on Electric and two years on Landscaping. As part of my duties on Landscaping, I managed an edible landscape around a student dorm.

The extended weekend was a great chance to catch up with friends, professors and old crew-bosses. I shared the "dollars and cents" of Tallahassee Food Gardens with four friends who are investigating the possibilities of food gardening ventures as post-graduation plans. My old Sustainable Agriculture professor and I talked about soil, worms, chickens, cover crops, bio-char, and church community gardens. With my old Landscaping supervisor, Tom "Lam" --as he's affectionately known because nobody seems able to pronounce his real name (LaMuraglia)-- I conversed about manures and granite dust as soil amendments.

And the food! With grass-fed beef in the cafeteria, garden-fresh greens on the salad bar, and a dorm that has an edible landscape, Warren Wilson has developed quite a food culture. In other words, much of the socializing takes place around food: growing, picking, preparing and eating it. And did we ever eat. Root vegetable stir fry. Fresh eggs with chives grown just outside. Oatmeal with fresh milk. Homemade donuts. Pumpkin. Greens. Fresh bread. Fried Okra. Bacon....

~ ~ ~

On Friday last week, I stopped in at the Black Mountain Community Garden, which, I learned, has three main objectives. First, it provides a place where families in the Swanannoa Valley can grow vegetables for their own use. Second, with the help of volunteers, the garden supplies fresh vegetables for low income families. And third, they seek to teach folks about how to grow and and the value of sharing food.

The bulk of the food grown by volunteers is distributed through Swanannoa Valley Christian Ministries and The Welcome Table, an open community meal prepared at Swannanoa Methodist Church for anyone who shows up-- whether or not they can pay.

~ ~ ~

As a side trip, on the way back to Tallahassee, a friend and I stopped in at Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, NC-- near Durham. The garden came into being in the outwash of a murder just up the road. The white and black pastors and churches came together for a prayer vigil. A black lady had a dream that she ought to donate five acres of her land to the greater community. A white man had visions of good food, sustainable agricultural practices, a vibrant and gathered community, and a pastor championed the cause. Out of the wash emerged Anathoth Garden.

With a grant from Duke and the ongoing support of a Methodist church, Anathoth is a managed community garden whereat people pay $5 a year and commit to work at least two hours per week. In exchange, they go home with an arm full of whatever is ripe and ready whenever they stop by.

The name Anathoth comes from the book of Jeremiah. Just before the predicted onslaught of the coming Babylonian invasion, God tells Jeremiah to purchase and settle a piece of land in a place called Anathoth. Similarly, in the face of racial divisions, murder, environmental degradation, and unhealthy food, the community of Cedar Grove chose to garden and share food together.

Twice a week, the garden hosts a community meal full of garden-ripe produce.

~ ~ ~

All these conversations about and visits to church related community gardens has me thinking of our potential here in Tallahassee. The bounty of food that could be grown in church gardens brings cornucopia to mind. So, if you have ideas about how I (how we) could encourage, facilitate, organize, and/or plant church community gardens, please share. Or, if you're dreaming about starting such a garden at your church and want someone with whom to brainstorm or someone to help you with grunt work, let me know.

...because I am still dreaming of the day when Tallahassee can feed itself, when everyone here can go to bed nutritionally satiated without worry of where their next weeks' of food will come from...

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