Weekend Gardener
6:14 pm
Fri April 1, 2011

Organizing a Community Garden

Welcome to our bi-weekly gardening column. To complement our weekend programming, we're offering more arts, culture, and lifestyle articles. Here, I write about the trials and tribulations of my own gardening and that of others--including community gardeners working to establish a space in which to grow. I hope you get inspired to dig in the dirt yourself.

Though I thought it was a radical idea at the time, my vision was to help create a large community vegetable garden to be located on the front lawn of the school where I was volunteering--at the busy intersection of Morganford and Gravois. Bevo-Long Middle School's Community Education Center discovered in a door-to-door neighborhood needs assessment survey that residents were interested in forming a community garden. The school also had an interest in enhancing its relationships with parents as well as incorporating more hands-on learning into curriculum. Additionally, a collaborative garden would beautify the neighborhood and enhance the health of residents. I decided to devote my entire summer to organizing the project. I gave a formal presentation to the school principal and council members who, to my surprise, agreed to let me proceed with the project with the goal of locating the garden on the front lawn.

The problem with those informative needs assessment surveys that a kind group of volunteers worked on was that none of them filled out the "contact information" part of the form. So, feeling uncomfortably like a sales person or a politician, I tried to recruit participants by going door-to-door to those same houses. It turns out that not many people answer their doors these days. So I started speaking at neighborhood association meetings. At one of the meetings with all elderly attendees, one man asked me why anyone would want to do such a thing. I asked him if he ever ate the tomatoes he found at the grocery store. He didn't see the connection. Not a single person at that meeting signed up.

I went to many more meetings at nearby neighborhood associations. They vary greatly by neighborhood and the strength of the group, but some of the meetings can prove a bit trying with having to listen to an hour or more of complaints about burning mattresses, stolen downspouts, loud neighbors, and untrimmed trees. However, I always waited patiently through the whole meeting so that residents could talk to me afterward. I must have given an enthusiastic sales pitch during one meeting, because five people came right up to me excited to know more.

After recruiting about eight interested community members, I held a meeting at the school to start working out logistics. Only one person showed. I learned the importance of reminder phone calls and scheduled another meeting. This time about four people attended and ate my garden-fresh homemade salsa, talked about what they would grow in their gardens, and made plans for getting more neighbors involved.

A few more people attended the next meeting. We adopted rules, talked about what tools we would need, how large the beds would be, who would be responsible for collecting dues, who would organize social events and work days, and who would serve as leaders and liaisons with the school.

I met with teachers and recruited one who would get her students involved. I continued to attend the monthly neighborhood association meetings, create and distribute fliers, and follow up with those who said they were interested. I got to know an Iraqi business owner on Gravois who fed me falafel sandwiches after my sweaty treks from block to block, as well as residents who had lived in the neighborhood for 80 years and insisted on inviting me in and then talking for an hour about how the neighborhood had changed for the worse. Eventually about twelve optimistic people interested in meeting their neighbors and growing vegetables signed the official list confirming that they wanted a plot.

With the input of the other gardeners, I began a grant application to Gateway Greening for tools, hoses, plants, and bed materials. The grant application process is very involved, requiring an interview, a drawing of the proposed site and bed layout, inventory of current supplies, a letter from the property owner, a week-by-week schedule of maintenance tasks and assignments for the coming year, answers to essay questions, and letters of support from multiple officials and organizations. The other gardeners and I proposed partnerships with a neighboring school, churches, and organizations, whose representatives all wrote letters of support. I also procured a letter from the city alderwoman for our district, the neighborhood stabilization officer, the school principal, and a neighborhood horticulturalist and council member.

Multiple garden participants were required to attend info sessions at Gateway Greening to learn about the grant process and what makes for a successful and lasting community garden. We met other prospective gardeners from all over the city. I submitted the grant in early November.

After a site visit from the grant committee at Gateway Greening, in February we found out that we were awarded a grant. Five of us attended the ceremony. I had another meeting, so missed when they called our name (we were the first ones, with our name starting with a "B"). But it was still a very satisfying moment, realizing that my "radical" idea to get strangers working together to build a large garden on the front lawn of a school was becoming a reality.

The early March morning the garden was installed was a bit cold and gray, but it was a glorious day. After hundreds of hours of work organizing the group and making official plans, the 4 x 8 beds I had drawn on paper now appeared before me in three dimensions of wood and black soil. The gardeners got a grill going for lunch and worked alongside one another, talking like friends. The members who reluctantly took on leadership roles were now initiating discussions about dues and installing drip irrigation hoses.

Gateway Greening left us with a few cold-hardy seedlings, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and spinach. My bed is in the front center, where I plan on growing a rowdy stand of bright zinnias and giant sunflowers to proclaim to all the silent strangers driving through the busy intersection that there is a vibrant community here.