Saturday, February 10, 2007

Community Gardening

The current Farmer’s Almanac quotes one gardener who insists that the more we involve others in our garden, the less ownership we feel in it. As a convert to "community gardening", I would argue that the very opposite is true.

Community is the natural state of things in a garden. Plants do not exist in isolation. Even as they jostle each other for space or nutrients, there is an interdependence at work that for the individual plant is life-changing. Growth and change come with the territory. Gardens are never about "status quo" and never about being alone.

Community gardening consciously promotes that kind of nitty-gritty sharing. We all bring to the process unique strengths, literally and figuratively. Our backs may not sustain prolonged digging, but instead we can contribute the patience of a weeder. Some of us are master dead-headers capable of hours spent carefully trimming back the bloomed-out and weather-damaged.

As we delegate and broker such gifts, humility and mutual support become part of the equation—a mirror of successful garden design itself. Lowly border plants may not be among the flashiest plants, but they are crucial to hold the line between lawn and bed. Shorter, sturdy species can work better than external stakes to support taller, more fragile stalks. So, too, people in a community garden each have a role to play, promoting a healthy sense of self-worth and mutual respect.

Gardening in community can promote sharing that goes far, far deeper than just such tasks at hand. A wise crew leader knows this and tries to pair workers in small groups rather than just deploying them individually in isolated parts of the garden. The conversations that result can be far more powerful as motivators than just checking off "jobs-accomplished" on a to-do list.

Shared garden maintenance becomes less of a "competition" and more of a "contact" sport. Gardening alone, there is temptation to become obsessed with "how big" and "how much" a plot of ground can produce. In a community garden, rewards center around recognizing the value of the "whole"—beauty stemming from the overall impact of the garden, not just the spectacular achievements of a single plant or bed or even gardener.

Competition can be a lonely and divisive business. It magnifies our faults as well as our accomplishments. As we garden in community, we are cultivating a very different kind of kinship, not just with those plants we till and tend but with one another. The sense of connectedness of plant and people can become truly profound and life-affirming.

Folk wisdom says, where there is a bare plot of earth, there is a garden waiting to bloom. These grim winter months can be a good time to look around for those places in everyday life that could profit from a bit of nurturing. It might be a bare foundation wall in front of the office. It could be a foot-trodden spot along the curb on a residential block.

To reclaim the neglected or down-trodden—whether soil, land or friendships that need cultivating—can be as simple as enlisting partners in the process. Recruit several neighbors or co-workers. It could be a friend we need to cultivate. Make a plan and pool resources to purchase the seeds or plant stock. Establish a work schedule that depends upon time spent together sharing tools, sharing skills and know-how and celebrating tasks jointly completed.

Community gardening, on whatever scale, can be one of the most important commitments we ever make. The beauty achieved is only a by-product. The most powerful accomplishment gets to the very heart of what it means to garden: the search for healthy community.