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A Community Garden of My Own

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Ten years ago I took a job as an English instructor at a state university in upstate New York. The problem was, the home I purchased had no yard: I couldn't garden! But luck would have it that the university was at that time offering a grant to anyone who had an idea for a project with an environmental focus. I had one: a community garden! I knew just the right spot for it, too. There was a two-acre parcel of land some four miles or so outside the city center, beyond the maddening crowd, a mile and a half from the university and directly across from a popular nature reserve where people walked their dogs and communed with nature. The land hadn't been farmed for decades, perhaps more, so the soil was rich and free of poisons, and ready to grow anything planted on it. It was perfect, at least my eyes.

At the proposal meeting, I presented my plan clearly and passionately, and when I was done, the director of the university's field station where I proposed to build the gardens pompously pointed his finger at me and baring his baked-bean teeth fired: "Do you have any idea how many pernicious weeds proliferate out there in that field, sir?" The very next comment came from a rather scary-looking administrator, with the attitude of an executioner. She rubbed her temples balefully and moaned lowly: "If we put a community garden out there, someone will inevitably fall into a hole and sue us." Next there were a few members on the board who seemed to know a lot more about such things than I, and they asked with puzzled looks: "Who would want to drive all the way out there just to garden?" Me and other gardeners like me, I suggested. That made them all laugh. (I'm not sure if it was my grammar or my naïveté.)

A week later I got a phone call from the head of the board informing me that the community garden project had been approved.

The first thing I did was to get in contact with a local farmer. I convinced him to turn the soil over with his tractor and plow. He did it for free, asking only for a bushel of tomatoes when they were ripe. Soon after that, the school newspaper and the city's daily newspaper both ran a story about the new community garden, which got the word out. The wheels were turning; things were starting to happen. Before the start of spring, I called a general meeting of all interested parties. Only a few people showed up, university board members mostly. However, a colleague of mine, a Mohawk American Indian, came to the meeting and wanted to know if he could grow some of his heritage White corn. Because corn is easily contaminated through pollination, he wanted to make sure that no one else was going to grow corn. Since there was no one else other than me, I made the executive decision to ban all corn except his from the garden. At that point, a suggestion was made that since we were on the subject, I should draw up a list of rules for the garden. I agreed. We came up with a few rules about parking and borrowing tools and such. I made the suggestion that herbicides and pesticides should be banned in order to keep the garden completely organic. No one disagreed, so that was put on the list. In a half hour, we were done.

The next day my Mohawk friend and I met out at the site, staked out our beds, and declared the community garden open for business.

As the days passed, I waited for other people to join... and waited... and waited... and waited. Spring was nearly gone and the weeds were growing ever taller in the tilth; it was nigh on planting season. Finally, a member of the public radio station who had read the newspaper interview and was thinking of doing a report on the community garden called me up and asked if he and his wife could garden. I told him he could go out himself and choose his own spot. And so he did. That was it for season one: three gardeners, three gardens. It was a pretty good growing year. The corn did well. The peas and beans did best. The tomatoes (most of which went to the farmer), lettuce, squash, and zucchini were just so-so. Of course the pernicious weeds were a dastardly scourge.

For season two I got a little more pro-active. I first contacted the Salvation Army. This Eeyore of a major, or whatever rank it is that they hold, explained to me in a patronizing manner that the people who came there were poor; they didn't need to work; they needed to eat. Work? Who said anything about work? But I didn't argue with him. Next, I tried the disabled community. (My wife and I at the time were family care providers for adults with disabilities. We had a young woman living with us in our home.) I thought it would be a great way to incorporate physical activity into their daily regimen. The initial response was enthusiastic. I met with a couple of the county administrators. They actually came out to the garden and looked around. They chose two spots closest to the parking area.

"Can you box up the beds about two feet high so that people don't have to bend over? We have some people in wheelchairs."

"I don't have a budget for that," I explained with a smile.

"But they can't be expected to dig in the soil," they frowned.

"Why not?"

"It's too difficult! And look at all those holes. They could fall in and hurt themselves."

"Okay, I'll prepare it for them, but that's the best part of the job."

"What about the holes?"

"Don't worry about the holes. I'll fill them in."

With a rototiller I prepared the bed so that the humus looked like freshly ground espresso. Filled the holes, too. During that season, I saw just one young disabled person come out to the site. He appeared to be autistic and didn't do any of the work himself. I watched his caseworker carve the soil with a hand spade and stuff a few tomato plants in while he stood nearby watching the birds flying overhead. They never came back to harvest them. The product decayed on the vine. It broke my heart to see them growing there, day after day, devolving from green to ripe to rotten. I learned later that the director of the organization had deemed it too far and too much of a headache to transport people out to the site to work in the garden.

So it was the three of us again for season two. We had a nice full crop of corn that year; the tomatoes, lettuce, squash, beans, parsley, even the carrots did well. As for pernicious weeds, they remained our nemesis.

Long before the start of season three, I contacted the local senior volunteer center thinking that they might be interested in gardening. I was put in touch with several different people before being churlishly scolded that senior volunteers did not do any kind of hard physical labor, besides, it was too far to drive. Who said anything about labor? And it's only four miles. But I wasn't going to argue with them. It looked like it was going to be the three of us again, when out of the blue, while hoeing a row in late spring, a man appeared at my elbow. He was a little frayed around the edges. Joe was his name. He told me he'd heard through the grapevine that there was a community garden. That's right. Joe was from the nearby outpatient addiction clinic. He knew a lot of people who would benefit from a little gardening. Fantastic! Bring 'em down! And so a week later, I came out to the site and lo and behold there were a dozen men, looking pretty much like what one would expect coming from an outpatient addiction clinic, weeding, mowing, edging, rototilling, and turning the place inside out and upside down. At long last the community garden was a hotbed of activity. A few weeks after that I arrived to find a big, wooden, four-foot sign out in front with the words "Community Garden" painted colorfully in bold letters. They were really doing great things.

But then one day, toward the end of the season, I arrived at the garden only to discover that everything had been picked clean. All the tomatoes and parsley and lettuce and carrots and Mohawk White corn were gone. I thought a herd of marauding deer had swarmed through the area. Turns out the marauding herd was from the addiction clinic. They had been under the mistaken impression that a community garden meant that you could help yourself to whatever you liked, whenever you liked. I explained things to Joe, reminded him of the list of rules (there was nothing in there about harvesting other people's crops) and asked him nicely to tell the others to return all that they'd taken. A few cobs of Mohawk corn reappeared in a brown sack, but that was it. I never saw any of them again.

So season three ended as it had begun: with just the three of us. The garden had never looked so good, even though we didn't get to eat our corn, tomatoes, parsley, or zucchini, etc. The one silver lining was that the pernicious weeds had at last been evicted.

It's year ten of the community garden. There are still three of us out there. Our individual gardens have increased considerably in size, which is about the only change of note. And my Mohawk friend has moved on; another gardener has taken his place. People will occasionally call me on the phone or approach me while I'm gardening and inquire about gardening, but they never follow through. The university has yet to offer any further assistance beyond their original grant, and only occasionally does someone from there (I don't work there anymore) inquire about the garden; it's always just to find out whether or not we plan on gardening again the following year.

Last year officials from the city called me up because a local bank had donated money specifically for the creation of a community garden, and they wanted my advice. Here's what I told them: Choose a spot close to town. Prepare everything for them, and I mean everything. Build boxes and fill them with soil so that all they will have to do is plant. Post a list of rules. Fill all the holes. Steer clear of universities and addiction clinics. And whatever you do, don't mention the word "work."

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