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Usage and Sunnyvale

  • Subject: [cg] Usage and Sunnyvale
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Sun, 22 Jan 2006 20:34:17 -0800 (PST)

Hi, Josh and all,

Three comments on 'usage' (participation?), and garden
design, planning and management. 

First, congratulations on your group's success, Josh,
but, my friend, methinks thou dost protest too much in
response to Adam's reply. No doubt you all have done a
great deal of work and invested a great deal of hope
and energy, and I highly commend you for that.
Community gardens are indeed a worthy cause. 

That said, Adam does raise some questions you don't
really answer - and those questions are based on his
hard-won experience. True, Sunnyvale is a far cry from
Hell's Kitchen in the middle of Manhattan where Adam
is a community gardener, but Adam and his community
have managed to survive, indeed thrive, over two
decades in spite of some tough challenges. If their
experience, and that of thousands of other community
gardeners, is any guide, your own successful garden
may well change quite a bit from the design you've
come up with - ADA and hoped-for participation by
various sorts of Extension 'Master Volunteers' not
withstanding. It will be your garden group's ability
to adapt, respond and build community that will make
all the difference. 

If only good intentions and hard work lead to
sustainability, peace and justice (and healthy

In any event, there's a participation 'curve' with new
gardens here in Charlotte. Recruitment is often modest
in the beginning (for instance, over the past 2 years,
on two new half-acre gardens, one of appx 36 plots
with 10x20, the other with a mix of 22 plots, 20x20
and 10x15, the beginning occupancy was less than 1/3
(8 in both cases). This grew very rapidly to require
waiting lists 12 months after opening (in spite of
haphazard recruitment and publicity) as the gardens
appeared and at least some of the plots were visibly
successful. In both cases, also, at approximately 1/3
of the original gardeners left during the first year
or at the end, a few without ever showing up (often,
these were members of  'supporting' groups, such as
Master Gardeners, Park and Rec environmental staff,
etc who thought they 'should' have a plot, or that it
would be 'cool'). 

So, in the beginning, you might be wise to prepare for
some instability and to be ready to manage some
unoccupied plots. You may want to be ready to maintain
open/neglected/abandoned beds with nice looking cover
crops or grow a relatively low maintenance veggie on
them for 'grow a row for the hungry'. With luck, your
Master Gardeners or a youth garden group may help with

On participation, be as mindful as possible of
recruitment and inclusion of gardeners in your
garden's management - and cultivate/praise/support
your garden 'deva' (or devas). Every successful garden
has someone in this role, a person (sometimes more)
who loves gardening and is right there in the garden
minding all the little things, from weeds needing
whacking to helping Ms. Jones plant her tomatoes when
her arthritis is too painful.

Take zillions of pics, of everything, and do hold
those classes - I work very closely with our local
Master Composters (not an Extension program here, but
done through waste reduction/recycling), and we use
the garden as a demo site - and count every person who
visits or takes a class. Count visitors, student
interns (our community college horticulture tech
degree is a godsend), community volunteers - don't
just count the gardeners. 

American community gardening is not really 'allotment'
gardening ('rent-a-plot') like it is traditionally in
the UK or Europe, there is more a 'barnraising'
element as Karl Linn put it - so, in calculating
'usage' for decision makers and funders, be sure to
measure overall social impacts, not number of
gardeners. Adam's garden does this brilliantly, I
think, by dividing the garden into an
allotment-inspired area for garden beds where people
rent plots, and a front 'park' area that provides
green space and many traditional park functions
(community gathering place, attractive plantings, etc)
where a much larger number of people can obtain a
'key'. Of course, in Sunnyvale you won't necessarily
do that, but you might adapt something similar. In
Durham NC, for instance, the SEEDS community garden
shares space with the food bank and has a production
area for youth to grow for a local farmers market. In
Charlotte in the community garden where I have a plot,
there's a demonstration and test area for Organic
Gardening magazine variety trials.

This kind of thinking 'outside the plot' may seem like
nonsense, given the need to simply get the garden up
and running. But reminding folks that community
gardens have broad benefits to the larger community is

Garden realities can pose problems in a world that
demands instant success and photogenic results
(remember, lots of folks believe that perfect looking
(if flavorless and pesticide drenched) fruits and
vegetables spontaneously generate overnight on
supermarket shelves. They don't know that gardens can
be messy affairs.  If you are in public view, you'll
need to keep it tidy. We've had problems here with a
small children's garden that is located where the head
of Park and Recreation (our lead community garden
agency) can see it, and he complains constantly at the
slightest sign of untidiness. Personally , I encourage
use of sunflowers and other easy, attractive, low-care
flowers along perimeter fences - that make a very nice
positive impression. Likewise with flowering vines,
such as lablab bean.

If you've got 80 - 120 active people (my 'eyeball'
estimate here is that most plots - of all sizes - have
1 or maybe 2 people who come out regularly - 1 for
active seniors, young singles and most couples (only 1
is the gardener); 2 for folks who 'pair up' to rent a
plot or those with an interested child or friend),
then you'll be producing some crops. Make absolutely
sure you stay on top of harvesting. Unharvested crops
attract critters, and I'll bet there are a couple of
rats even there in Sunnyvale (they probably listen to
ipods and drink only lattes, but if one of those
babies runs across Councilperson Schmertz's foot while
he's visiting the garden, you're sure to hear about
it. Check out Spring Gillard's _Diary of a Compost
Hotline Operator_ for a glimpse of what I'm talking
about (it's a good read, anyway).

I'm ranting here - the Panthers just got whupped by
the Sea Hawks, so now I have to send my brother in
Washington State a selection of Carolina barbecue
sauces, so I'm in a ranting mood - my last suggestion
is check out some local sources. Los Angeles has an
excellent Extension-based community gardening program,
closer to home there are good things happening in
Sacramento and Berkeley/Oakland. Get in touch with
them (though the ACGA website,
www.communitygarden.org) - hopefully, since you sound
very well organized, you've already done that.

So, good luck, Josh. I couldn't tell if you were a
gardener, from your post. If you are, great! If not,
let me strongly encourage you to take a garden plot
yourself. In my opinion, there is no better way to
understand a community garden than from the inside,
from the soil up.

Keep us posted, and hope you (and a bunch of your
fellow gardeners and friends of the garden) will be
able to come to the ACGA conference in Los Angeles in
August 2006.

(Meanwhile, Mike, yep, my peas have sprouted.
Outdoors. (OK, yeah, with row covers, and a zillion
recycled plastic milk jugs full of water on the beds).
You know, this warm weather has some advantages, no
doubt about it. Helps me forget about the big ol' ice
storm lurking up there north of Barrow, just waiting
until the peaches bloom early before it comes roaring
down to visit me in Dixie.

Don B.
Charlotte, NC, USA

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