Friday, September 14, 2012

Community Garden - Stay or Go?

DeWees Farm #43 - My experimental garden
for three years
I'm wrapping up my third year of gardening at our community garden aka "City Farm".   With a too-hyper-to-garden 2.5 year old son in the house, I knew it'd be tough to maintain a garden a half mile from the house.  And it was.

I planted about half of the garden in cover crops this year, and was really satisfied with the results.   I tried four new species of plants (Bee's Friend, German Millet, Hopi Amaranth, and Hot Biscuits Amaranth), and all four grew and bloomed.  To some extent.  I got to experiment with gravity-fed drip irrigation, which also worked.  To some extent.     But I didn't get a lot of food.

I joined the City Farm 4 years ago (wait-listed the first year) because I wanted a healthy garden, but our back yard was in dense shade for all but a few hours in the morning.  Tomatoes grew, but were leggy.  Peppers grew, but didn't produce fruit until October. Okra plants produced 2 pods each.  What a bummer - and a waste of time, energy, and water.

I've documented the good, bad, and ugly of community gardening - just my own personal experiences - in pretty extensive detail here on River Mud.  I seem to have hit a couple of real obstacles, though:

1. It's not at home.  Not being able to easily lay my eyes on my garden on a near-daily basis meant that I simply can't grow some crops (hasn't stopped me from trying).  Some (watermelons) are likely to be stolen if others assumed that I have "left" them.  Others (okra, squash) go from being "perfect size" to "inedible" in about 48 hours. At my most active (year 2-2011), I was visiting/picking/working the garden every 48-72 hours.  It's not enough.

2. Out of sight, out of mind.  Because extra effort is required to even get to the garden (driving or walking, carrying tools, etc), garden work easily fell down the "to do" list.  

3. Limitations of a public space.  Huge varieties of issues here, from my complaints that uphill gardeners were using way too much insecticide on their bare soil, to others' complaints that my sunflowers were blocking the sunlight for their tomatoes.  And all of us mutually blaming each other for the rat problem that occurs once gardeners start ignoring their tomatoes in August.

Anyhow, another big thing happened this summer.

The giant storm that  knocked out power to 18 million Americans hit us too, leaving us without electricity for a week.  On the sixth day, crews showed up to butcher the trees under the powerlines in our 70 year old neighborhood, including three big trees that blocked all of our morning sun.  The first crew left a huge amount of destruction, but the trees were still standing.  A month later, a "mop up" crew came back down and took down about 15 trees on our street (all under / through the power lines) and over 100 trees out of the neighborhood in general.  In addition, half of the canopy of a fourth tree fell out of the sky during the storm, so we actually now have bright sun conditions from dawn until noon, and very light shade from about noon until 4pm.  Not perfect, but a vast improvement.

As a result of that storm, and some events that surrounded it, I've made some changes in the way I think about things.  About life, too.   I'm working very hard to simplify.  It's a very tough task.  Part of it means growing food seriously.  Which means growing food at home.  Next year, my peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, greens, and herbs will all be living in raised beds in our back yard, watered by drip irrigation that comes from a set of three rain barrels.  An intensive grow setup basically like this:

So, all of that basically being decided, what becomes of the City Farm plot? It's 200 square feet of beds that I've meticulously cared for over the last three years.  I hate to leave the plot, only to see it be tilled under and put into standard, highly eroding, highly polluting conventional gardens (hills, rows, and washouts is what I call it). If I keep it, I'll simply use it for a low maintenance crop like potatoes or sweet potatoes next year.  Do I need 5 bushels of potatoes next year? I'm not so sure.  But if I give up the plot, I certainly won't forget all the cool stuff I grew (and ate) over the last three years.


Anna said...

That last photo is beautiful! I'd love to hear more about individual results on the cover crops.

Even though I've never used a community garden, my experience with proximity has been the same as yours. Just trying to keep a garden going at the end of a moderately long driveway was too much for me! Outside the back door is the way to go. I'm glad your trees came down just in time!

The Reverend Fowl ™ said...

Each year something happens or comes up that causes me to let the garden go towards the end of the season, returning later to see what has survived.

biobabbler said...

Well I am excited to see your future garden--sounds great. I DO understand out of sight, out of mind. I'm very much built that way, so a garden somewhere other than 8 paces out my back door is doomed. Like, say, my "orchard" (eef!).

I DO think the information you share by having that plot and explaining your goals to (however snarky) fellow plot holders is valuable, but I'm sure that's not enough for you w/all you've got going on. Best of luck, whatever you do. I'd vote for super cool crops that fend well for themselves and look amazing. =) Amaranth comes to mind, etc.

Alex said...

When you first mentioned that the backyard was too shady, my initial thought was "What about those storms?"

Ta Da

Good luck with your backyard garden!

Scott said...

It would probably be cool to maintain a low-maintenance remote garden plot where you experiment with different crops or plants. Put up a sign sealed in plexiglas for each experiment so that the other gardeners think you're a mad scientist rather than a slacker. If it was me, I'd use the plot as a mini-nursery, complete with overhead shade screening, to raise native plant cuttings that I'm trying to propagate for future use in the on-going invasive plant removal battle that my township's Environmental Advisory Council are fighting. Wild cherry, red bud, elderberry, serviceberry, all to replace invasive plants we remove. Bare soil is the devil's workshop when it comes to invasive exotic plants. Have fun with it!

Nancy Botwin said...

Maybe you could grow pot. Sometimes the best hiding place is in plain sight.

T. Brook Smith said...

We did a community garden this year with a resulting haul about about 200 pounds of zucchini and enough pesto to soften Mussolini's heart. We're also buying a house this fall and it's pretty clear we're not going to follow up at the community garden next year. Too many intrusions, cigarette butts and crabby neighbors to make the trek worthwhile. Square foot gardening here we come.

Kirk Mantay said...

I need to have all of you over to my house. Such wonderful input from some great people :) Thanks for the comments - I take them to heart :)

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