Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Baltimore Community Garden Experiment (#2)

....Baby not included in this package
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So I guess I am 8 or 10 weeks into my experiment, which is essentially to find out if someone of moderate gardening talent (me) can successfully grow reasonable amounts of food in a community garden setting - where the individual gardener has no control over (long term) soil conditions, pest control used (or not used) by gardeners less than 36 inches away, or even the other gardeners' attention to their own crops. My observations, it should be noted, are based on my growing (ha ha) experience with the City Farm Community Garden Program of Baltimore, Maryland. We started fairly recently, here. My observations so far have been different than I expected, but first, it's hard to argue with results, so compare the photo above to my starting conditions in April of this year (below).
Wow, that is just plain sad.
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First, the demographics of my particular garden differ from other gardens in the City (or so I'm told, upon asking around). Out of 90+ garden plots, there are about 50 gardeners. 49 out of 50 are men. 48 out of 50 are over the age of 60. Most are fully retired. Most are black. Many gardeners picked up "extra" abandoned plots during the 1990s, when community gardening was not a popular idea (at least in Baltimore), so several folks have pretty expansive gardens as a result (how much lettuce can a man eat?). A few seem to have extensive wildflower and herb garden "set-asides" and I am interested in seeing how they develop.
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The City Farm program is run, I think, by young idealists who understand the idea of sustainable urban agriculture and local food. This makes me very happy. However, because of the demographics of these gardens (at least mine), there seems to be a disconnect of information and practices - let me use two quick examples.
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The City Farm Program Guide explicitly discourages the use of conventional pesticides and herbicides. This makes plenty of sense, on sites where every garden is adjacent to at least 3 other gardens. So imagine my surprise when, on the first warm day of late April, I saw 3 gardeners scooping out piles of systemic insecticide onto open ground on their garden plots. One gardener was so kind as to leave a half-full bag of Sevindust out for other gardeners to use. Given my interest in bees and wildlife, and my own use of Bt, this was a big let down. Honestly though, old guys do it the way they've always done it. How do you change that behavior?
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Second example, the City Farm Guide mentions "cover crops" but also has very explicit language about keeping garden plots "free of weeds." For the advanced gardener, this probably seems clear, but clearly most gardeners just practice "clean farming" and forget about "cover crops," whatever that means (I can hear an old timer saying it). This means that at the end of the summer, every ounce of organic matter is removed from the soil, which is then left bare all winter. The effect is that after 20 years of gardening this 5 acre (or so) site, the soil elevation of the garden plots is anywhere from 6 to 18 inches lower than the surrounding turf/clover borders. All that erosion, all that sediment......right to the Chesapeake Bay. I think the City Farm staff should be far more aggressive with encouraging cover crops and other soil conservation methods (like maybe a sediment basin at the lowest end of our site). I'm not sure they are aware of the extent to which many of their gardeners "don't get it."
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Another unexpected, and positive, observation I've had is the reinforcement of my theory that the outdoors can bring out the best in people. When our "farm rabbit" ate my lettuce, another gardener said I could take as much of his as I wanted. Almost daily now, other gardeners leave extra seedlings in the shade, labeled for a stranger to take and grow. I've seen gardeners help each other with menial tasks, and I know that I keep watering my "neighbor's" plot, because he visits infrequently and for some reason, I don't want his plants to die. I've never even met him - although someone told me that "he" is a "him," that's all I know about the guy. I haven't heard a single comment about my age (I'm certain I'm the youngest) or my whiteness (I'm not the whitest, ha ha), and honestly, I didn't know if I'd be able to make those statements when I started a few months ago.
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The harvest so far has been slim, but things are starting to turn. I'll let you know what happens next!

3 comments:

Mike said...

Ha! I think you're pretty much spot on in your observations...although I would argue that it's almost impossible for you NOT to be the whitest person in your garden!
Anyway, I think the Druid Hill garden is a little more gentrified and "progressive" then you're garden in that only a few folks use pesticides and there's a decent percentage of younger gardeners. That said, the old timers can grow some crazy amounts of stuff. I swear a few of those guys will have tomatoes in a few weeks! Anyway, nice post.

Swamp Thing said...

Ha, there's no joke about the old guys. Most of them have folding chairs and just sit out there all day. Would it be fair to say that they are trying to avoid their wives?

Anyway, I've been pulling blooms off of my tomato plants for awhile...I'm just now letting some bloom so we can get some cherry toms soon.

Getting ready to pick garlic, too!

Swamp Thing said...

And PS I'm definitely not the whitest - we have the obligatory 50 year old lady with the giant straw hat and a "gardening bag" full of cute little tools with ribbons tied around them. She locks herself in, whenever she's there (you know, in broad daylight).

Whereas, I do my gardening with a 10lb maddock.