Gifts of the Garden

A beautiful, sunny, 70-degrees-with-a-light-breeze Sunday morning was upon me.  I walked out to the garden and saw Bobby and Nataka working in their plot.  They were digging.  Usually, the garden gets a delivery of soil that everyone uses to top off their plots.  This year, the place the soil comes from had an issue with contamination and may not deliver soil anywhere this year.  After hearing that we may not receive soil, Nataka and Bobby decided to dig trenches where their walkways were to maximize the soil they had in the plot already.  The trenches also meant that they were about eighteen inches closer to all their plants when working in the garden.  They did not have to bend over as much as I did in my flat plot.  After admiring their ingenuity, I decided to check on the mini-greenhouses and noticed that I had quite a few tomato seeds that had germinated.  The warm weather and regular watering created the perfect environment for tiny little tomato plants to grow.  One of the squash seedlings had completely outgrown its mini-greenhouse.  I took a two-liter bottle and cut it in half.  I planted the squash plant further down the plot and covered it up with its new home. 

Zephyr squash plant enjoying some fresh air.

I was really proud of the mini-greenhouses.   Another new garden neighbor, Jessie, was working in her plot for the first time this year.  She was turning the earth and cleaning up her area.  Jessie, Nataka, and Bobby borrowed my car to make a run to Home Depot.  I weeded my plot and found lots of onions and mint growing wild.  I decided to transplant the onions and pull as much mint up as I could.  Nataka, Bobby, and Jessie returned shortly after with lots of plants and seeds in hand.  Jessie bought seed tape.  She said that she wanted to avoid thinning carrots.  When carrot seeds are planted, it’s hard to space them correctly so gardeners usually throw a row of seeds down.  When the seeds germinate, they grow too close together so gardeners have to measure out the correct spacing and remove tiny carrot plants.  If thinning is done incorrectly, carrots won’t have enough room to grow and you won’t end up with hearty, tasty vegetables.  Thinning carrots, though I’ve never done it, seems to be annoying to gardeners.  Seed tape is two sheets of biodegradable material with seeds inserted between.  The seeds are spaced exactly right so there is no need for thinning.  I resolved to figure out how to make seed tape for almost free.   Nataka and Bobby graciously gifted me 6 lettuce plants.  I am not sure what variety they are, but some were red and some were green.  I gave them generous spacing and lovingly patted them into the ground.  The plot was looking pretty good. 

Baby lettuce plant smiling for the camera.

I had a community meeting to attend for two hours, then I headed straight back to the garden to meet up with Heidi and her gardener friend Tori.  Tori knew a lot about gardening and as I walked her through the community garden she shared some wisdom.  I expressed an interest in planting strawberries and she said she had some extra strawberry plants at her house.  My neighbor David appeared and chatted with us for a while.  He walked away and about 5 minutes later, my neighbor Matthew walked by with his friend OK from Nigeria.  Matthew came into the garden and I showed him my plot.  Matthew said that he wanted to have a garden with an aqueduct in his backyard.  We started talking about edible flowers and Tori explained how to make wine from flowers.  About 10 minutes later, my neighbor Khari walked by with two friends.  I showed them my plot and we talked about food systems and how growing our own food will take some fuel out of the dreadful food system fire.  Khari and his friends left after a while and we continued chatting about community gardens.  OK was really curious about the inner workings of the urban community garden.  He was curious about the etiquette and the rules and how duties were shared.  After about 20 more minutes, Nataka, Bobby, Khari, and Khari’s two friends all returned to the garden.  There were ten of us, chatting, laughing, and showing our plots off.  People walking by were mystified at this impromptu gathering.  Bobby showed me some scrap wood that was lying outside the garden and said I could use it for my pathways.  The tomato stakes I laid down my first day in the garden seemed to be in perpetual motion and were never perfectly aligned.  The scrap wood was about 8 feet long and looked like it used to have a starring role as large fenceposts.  I jumped on the chance to replace my tomato stake pathway with heavy wood and enlisted Heidi to help me carry the wood onto the plot.  We removed the old tomato stakes and placed the new used wood on my plot.  After the lifting was done, we re-joined the spontaneous garden party.  My face hurt from smiling at all the beautiful people around me.

That sunny Sunday, I received six lettuce plants, eight onion plants, the promise of strawberry plants, and a whole lot of scrap wood for my pathways.  I also laughed and smiled more than I have in a long time.  I engaged with my neighbors and friends.  The garden is not a utopia.  It has all the problems that we see in the world around us.  There is paranoia, jealousy, greed, miscommunication, and even theft in the garden.  Despite all this negativity, the garden also has the potential to bring out the best in people because it is a community space where we can all gather around a common goal.  The garden is a rare common space in a world full of increasingly individualistic and privatized ideals.  You cannot commodify a sudden gathering of people engaged in great conversation.  You cannot put a price tag on a shared ideal or the camaraderie you feel when you share a piece of knowledge about how to grow greens.  No one owns the garden and everyone is allowed in.  Sunday’s gathering never would have happened in a privately owned mall or business or a destitute parking lot.  The garden is a gift because it gives us space to share our individual gifts with each other.  I walked back to my house feeling truly grateful and satiated.  It was as if I just finished Thanksgiving dinner.  My cup runneth over.

Slow Food Takes Time

After creating my mini-greenhouses, I checked on the seeds daily and saw no major progress.  Then one day, I lifted up the half-soda bottles and saw them:  tiny green stalks that looked smaller than a blade of grass.  Four basil seeds germinated along with cucumber and squash.   The salvia, painted daisy, and tomatoes showed no sign of progression but I wondered what was going on under the dirt.  I had to take a trip out of state and left my mini-greenhouses for a few days.  The temperatures rose to a record high 80 degrees while I was gone.  I returned from my trip at about 10pm and drove by the garden.  Suddenly, it hit me:  I forgot to arrange for someone to water my plants.    I imagined a collection of burnt baby-plants in a graveyard-like fashion where my beautiful mini-greenhouses used to be.  Before unpacking, I grabbed some water and ran to the garden to check out the scene.  Even though it was dark, the streetlights gave enough light to see fairly well.  On the way, I was preparing myself for a trip to a local farm to buy all my plants instead of starting from a seed.  I opened up the first basil plant and saw nothing.  Every greenhouse I opened up revealed a whole bunch of dirt and not much else.  I felt like I had lost a friend.  I sprayed the seed cups with a sprayer anyway and lamented my forgetfulness.  The next morning, I decided to take a look at my mess again.  I opened the first used-to-be-basil plant and couldn’t believe my eyes.  The basil was there.  Even though I stared at the seed cups the night before, the light was too low to see the plants.  I admit, I was so excited to see my seedlings alive and well that I screamed and jumped up and down right in the garden.  The salvia started and a couple seed cups had two plants growing in them.  My cucumbers were looking strong and one squash plant had germinated.  Unfortunately, I lost 3 of the 4 basil plants in the heat.  I promised myself I would water my seedlings every day it didn’t rain.  I checked out the compost bin and sure enough there was a new empty 22-ounce beer in the bin.  I pulled the bottle out and resolved to make a sign for the bin as soon as I could.  Soon, the squash plant will be ready to be planted into the ground.  No tomato plants have poked up yet, but patience is a virtue.

Almost ready for the ground.

Compost Hell

Composting, when done correctly, is one the best activities related to gardening I can think of.  Basically, you take leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, and assorted non-dairy, non-meat biological matter and put it in a pile or into a vented container.  Over time, the natural decomposition of the materials creates a rich, dark substance that you can sprinkle on your plants.  I recommend this site as an excellent resource for reading up on compost fundamentals.  Composting, when done incorrectly, is horrible.  The Earth Machine (EM), a plastic tub with vents, closest to my plot in the garden was horrible.  It was filled with lots of inorganic trash.  I needed to clean it out in order to have some compost sprinkle all ready for my garden.  I had some extra time before work and decided to check on the mini-greenhouses and clean out the EM.   A cold snap was expected, so I took two old towels to cover up the mini-greenhouses.  I gently tucked the mini-greenhouses in and secured the towels with whatever I could find.  Pieces of bricks, part of my pathway, and some stones held the towels in place. 

Mini-greenhouses all tucked in.

Then I took to the dirty job:  cleaning out the compost.  I did not have gloves.  I would not recommend cleaning out a compost pile without gloves, but I didn’t have much time and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  The Earth Machine has a big top that screws off and a sliding door that is like a mini-garage door on the side.  I started by opening the top and digging through leaves.  There were little pieces of plastic everywhere.  I did my best to remove each and every one.  As I got deeper, I felt like an archeologist digging through layers of trash and leaves and plastic bags, collecting only certain bits and pieces.  I have really short arms and pretty soon I couldn’t reach.  I lifted up the side door and proceeded to uncover twelve forty-ounce beer bottles in paper bags.  There must have been a garden party that night.  Luckily, I didn’t unearth anything that could be considered major contamination.  I promptly hauled my newly acquired trash out of the garden and dumped my collection of proper compost materials into the Earth Machine.  I felt proud.  And dirty.  Feeling both proud and dirty is a common occurrence in gardening.  The clean-out inspired me to make some labels on my compost bin at home.

Labeled an old sugar container for compost.

I am investigating ways to put signage on the Earth Machine so I never have to clean it out again.  It is necessary that the information is graphic so people of any age and background can participate.  My next project is to create my own waterproof compost sign in Spanish and English, complete with graphics.

Seeding in Home-Made Mini-Greenhouses & Environmental Justice for Trash

Note: See the How-To page for a full materials list and detailed step-by-step instructions for making your very own Mini-Greenhouses. 

The plot has been poked and prodded to no end and the first day of Spring has come and gone. It was time to start seeding. The crop plan was still incomplete, but I decided to move forward with seeding. Heidi ordered some grain (quinoa, amaranth, millet) and greens seeds from the Sustainable Seed Company . The Sustainable Seed Company was nice enough to throw in a free seed packet of Painted Daisies. I ordered tomato, cucumber, squash, a mesclun mix from Johnny’s Seeds. I also picked up carrot, basil, and salvia seeds from Target (don’t judge me) when I was looking at their prices for big plastic bins for a future self-watering container garden project. On a beautiful sunny Sunday, Heidi and I decided to plant the seeds in mini-greenhouses we built using items from the recycle bin. Last week, I raided the cans/bottles collection at work and ended up with a big grocery bag full of empty water and soda bottles. I also saved a few egg cartons in anticipation of using them for some crafty/handy project. We had no real directions to follow, but started by cutting the egg cartons into individual cups. We then cut each plastic bottle in half horizontally. Each egg cup fit perfectly into the half-bottles. Upon further examination, I suggested that we poke a small hole in each bottle in order to create some air flow for the seedlings. I tried using an old-school wood burning tool to create holes. I bought the wood burner for $3 at a yard sale and the darned thing did not want to heat up. While the wood burning tool was heating, I decided to experiment. I took a shish kebab skewer and lit it on fire with a lighter. When the flame seemed to gain energy, I pushed the fiery end into the bottle. It worked like a charm, sliding right through the plastic after some pushing. Eventually, the wood burning tool heated up and I was able to use it, but the flaming skewers were way more dangerous and fun. We seeded tomatoes, basil, salvia, daisies, squash, and cucumbers in the mini-greenhouses. We placed them in the front of the plot on top of some black plastic. I hope that the plastic bottles can offer enough protection from wind, rain, and snow and the black plastic prevents the soil from getting too cold. I would estimate the mini-greenhouse project cost less than $4 to complete. I can’t wait to see what Leroy has to say about our low-cost way to build a greenhouse. Hopefully the seeds germinate soon. Germinate is just a fancy word for seeds making the transition to little mini-plants. 

Our mini-greenhouses prior to placing them in the garden.

There are two Earth Machines in the community garden. Earth Machines are giant black plastic barrels for collecting compost. 

The big bad Earth Machine. (photo credit: http://www.calgaryonlinestore.com)

About one week ago, I noticed the Earth Machines and started collecting veggie and fruit scraps, eggshells, and other “greens and browns” in an old plastic container. I brought my first container of compost out to dump into the Earth Machine. Right as I was about to pour some old vegetable scraps and tea bags into the compost, I heard Bobby yell “NO NO NOOO!!” I looked up to see him sprinting towards the garden from his nearby apartment. He explained that the compost bin closest to my plot had been used as a trash can and needed to be cleaned out before I could add any compost to it. I regretfully added “Clean out compost bin.” to my mental to-do list and saved my veggie scraps for a better time.  My next garden task will be to free all trash from the Earth Machine and my next entry will be all about composting.

Between my recycling bin and the compost container, very little garbage goes into the trash can at my apartment now.  Overfull dumps and trash transfer facilities are disproportionately placed in low-income communities and communities of color.  When I throw out something that could be composted or recycled, I am sending more mess to my brothers and sisters in communities much like mine.  Zoning protects the wealthy at the expense of the poor by making sure that permits for trash transfer stations are easier to get in low-income areas of color.  This disturbing article  appeared in the Bay State Banner in 2005.  According to the article, pollution levels in my neighborhood of Roxbury are remarkably higher than they are in other richer, whiter communities of Massachusetts.  “In Roxbury, where asthma rates are 178 percent of the state average, there are 123 pollution-generating sites per square mile, the tenth-highest concentration of such sites in the state” (Miller 2005). 

Environmental hazards and asthma hospitalizations are significantly higher in low-income communities of color. The map, originally from the Boston Health Commission, Office of Research, Health Assessment and Data Systems, shows data collected from 1994 to 1997. (credit: http://focus.hms.harvard.edu/2002/May17_2002/research_briefs.html)

In Massachusetts, communities of color average 24 times the number of pollution-generating sites per square mile than predominantly white communities.  This issue occurs in communities all over the country.  It is sad to think that the amount of money you make or the color of your skin correlate to your right to clean, healthy air.  It is scary to think that these stories are not covered by media, yet we are consistently bombarded with portrayals of communities of color as violent and dangerous.  I’ll end this with a question:  Why should low income communities and communities of color have to breathe in the trash that everyone creates?

Miller, Yawu “Air quality suffers in minority communities“. Boston Banner, The. FindArticles.com. 25 Mar, 2010. http://findarticles.com/p/news-articles/boston-banner-the/mi_8086/is_20051020/air-quality-suffers-minority-communities/ai_n50555476/

Preparing for Planting and A Brand-New Seedling Pops Up

After a long day at work, I changed into my gardening clothes and headed out to my plot.  I decided to take Leroy’s advice and use a shovel to turn over every bit of earth to prevent the growth of weeds throughout the season.  Optimally, I would have turned the earth over last fall, but the plot wasn’t mine to care for until this Spring.  As I was working, I pulled out more bits of trash and wood and set them to the side.  I got about a quarter of the way through when a big booming voice shouted “Ericaaaaaaaaa!” from across a nearby parking lot.  My neighbor Dave was heading my way.  He called me ‘farmer girl’ and told me about his plans to make it big as an actor.  Somehow we got on the subject of CEOs and upper level corporate folks taking giant bonuses and raises while other employees are denied cost-of-living raises and benefits are cut.  He said, “It sounds like it’s time for a protest.”  I couldn’t agree more.

We chatted until I was almost finished digging up my plot.  I brushed myself off and locked up the garden.  On my walk to my house, I ran into my neighbor Rory who was outside with her 4-year-old daughter riding a tricycle in circles around her legs.  Rory has five children and she is an amazing parent.  We talked about her oldest son Tory, his love of football and basketball, and his prospects for college.  As we were talking, this little head kept peaking out of her front door.  It was her younger son who is around 6 or 7 years old.  He eventually joined us outside.  He sprinted back and forth in front of the housing development.  We started high fiving each other every time he ran by.  The sun sank further and further down and as dusk settled in I worried that he would run into a tree.  Rory got to talking about how she handles the task of raising five children.  She explained that she never yells.  “When you yell, kids look at you like ‘What is wrong with you?!’” she explained.  We got to talking about the neighborhood and bringing more kid-friendly music into the community.  My neighbors Chris and Bianca came strolling down the street proudly carrying a bundle of joy with them.  A new little seedling was now in the neighborhood.  I was so happy to meet little ten-day-old Alanna.  What a beautiful family! 

Congrats Chris and Bianca!

Upon my return to my house, I realized that all my stress and fatigue was relieved.  I worked with my hands and connected to my community.  There’s no better way to end your day.

My First Real Dig in the Dirt

My second date with Mother Nature was all about getting to know my plot.  Once the callaloo was gone, I was able to get a better picture of what I was working with.  The plot is long and narrow.  It measures 6 feet by 25 feet.  Heidi and I decided to make a 1 foot wide path straight through the middle of the plot.  While I was battling the callaloo, I found some old wood in my plot and set it aside to dry out in a single layer .  The wood now became the markers for my foot path through the plot.  Fittingly, I used my foot as a width measure and created two straight lines exactly one-Erica-shoe-size apart using the old wood.  The path didn’t quite reach as far into the plot as I hoped, but I will find some more refuse wood soon and finish it up.  After marking my semi-crooked path, I decided to use a tool called a cultivator to work the land outside the path that will eventually become my planting beds.  I chose a cultivator because Bobby, my neighbor and the garden coordinator, raves about cultivators all the time.  It is a lot like slim rake with fewer tines.  The tines are longer and sharper than a normal rake.  I used the cultivator and started to dig through my plot.  

The Magical Cultivator (source: http://www.ehgriffith.com)

 As I was working, another garden-neighbor showed up to work on his masterpiece of a garden that was mysteriously covered in plastic.  He started to pull the plastic off his plot and I tried to sneak looks at what was going on under all that wrapping.  I continued to work until I heard him address me: “Hey, Wanna see sumthin?”   I responded enthusiastically and ran over to see a bed of greens growing like wildfire.   My garden-neighbor Leroy used heavy duty plastic and old tomato stakes to cover his entire plot and continue growing throughout the winter.  In mid-March in Boston, Leroy was ready to harvest a whole bunch of greens.  He had placed old soda and Gatorade bottles on top of the tomato stakes to keep them from ripping holes in the plastic.  He showed me another part of his plot where the plastic sheeting was not thick enough.  The snow had piled on top of the plastic and weighed it down, ripping holes through the thinner sheet.  Even the legends seem to experiment with different techniques in the garden.  He planned to harvest the greens and plant sweet potatoes in their place.  We chatted for a while about his success and I got inspired to work even harder on my plot.  I am beginning to realize that urban gardening is all about ingenuity.   It’s about taking what you have and making it into something that can use to sustain yourself.  Leroy’s sheet plastic, tomato stake, and bottles made a greenhouse.  That project probably cost him less than $5 to put together.  The constraints of space and money prevented Leroy from having a full-blown fancy-pants greenhouse, but he found a way to grow through the winter.  You know what they say:  One’s man’s trash is another man’s food production.

Leroy standing proud with his greens in mid-March.

I dug through every bit of earth in my plot.  It was mostly dark black dirt riddled with worms, the superstars of the garden.  Earthworms never fail to come up in conversation with my fellow gardeners.  Leroy threatened to steal the worms from my plot after he saw how many I had.  The back of my plot was home to a big uneven pile of gravel with a little bit of dirt mixed in.  Bobby and Nataka strolled through the garden as I was working.  After they engaged in some friendly garden admiration and smack-talk (read: bragging and boasting) with Leroy, I showed them my path and the gravel pile.  Bobby recommended using a shovel to level out the pile.  He informed me that the garden was getting a new shipment of soil soon and as long as the plot was level, I could fill in with new soil and cover the gravel.  Using a shovel, I took the gravel from the back of the plot and used it to fill in the walking path.  I now have a perfectly flat plot with a homemade gravel walkway.  I may not have greens like Leroy, but on my way out of the garden Leroy told me I was doing a good job.  He even praised the beads of sweat that collected on my forehead before recommending that I take a shovel and turn over all the earth in my plot one more time.  A gardener’s work is never done.

She cleans up nice, doesn't she?

Crop Planning

Heidi, my special farmer friend, helped me create a crop plan for my plot at a coffee shop near my house.  A crop plan is a schedule that keeps your planting season organized.  We began by making a menu of what crops we want to be ready for harvest throughout the season.  We used formulas in Excel spreadsheets to figure out how many seeds we needed, how much room each crop needed, and when we should plant or transplant.  We marked whether each plant was a direct plant (seed goes directly into the ground) or a transplant (seedling must be grown in small container before being transplanted into the ground).  Each crop has its own preference.  For example, if carrot seedlings are transplanted, the carrots will not have a good shape once they grow to full size so carrots should be direct seeded into the ground.  The coffee shop we were working at closed before we could finish the plan, but not before The Clash came on the stereo and I belted every word to Train in Vain while Heidi tried to ask me when I wanted the tomatoes to be ready to eat.  The answer:  AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!  This gardening thing is going to take some patience.