Monday, January 4, 2010

Planting to Grow A Community

Happy New Year!

I can’t believe it’s been more than two weeks since I wrote a post. I had one planned for just before Christmas; I even had a title: Christmas Trees. I wouldn’t be referring to pine or fir trees trimmed with ornaments and lights, but to a gift of fruit trees I fully expected to receive. Just goes to show, you should never count your trees before they sprout. Or something like that.

Here’s what happened. A couple of weeks before Christmas, I heard via a master gardener’s listserv that the
Fruit Tree Planting Foundation had invited grant applications from Madison for trees to be planted in community gardens, parks, and other public spaces. Interested parties from around the city were asked to attend a meeting organized by the newly formed Madison Fruits and Nuts (MFN) to determine which neighborhood locations would be selected to apply for the grant. Major requirements included access to water and a committed group of volunteers willing to be trained to, and undertake care of, the trees.

I sent out an email to the neighborhood listserv and was thrilled to get 25 enthusiastic volunteers. I encouraged everyone to attend the meeting to select neighborhoods. It was a frigid night, postponed to that date because of a huge snowstorm the previous week. Only one other couple besides Rick and me showed up to represent our neighborhood. Still, I was sure we had a good chance. I was so excited about the prospect of an urban orchard just blocks from my house, and getting to know more of my neighbors, I was already planning my blog post to brag about it.

The sad ending to this tale is obvious: We were not selected by MFN to apply for the grant. Stunned to receive this lump of coal just days before Christmas, I emailed to ask what were the criteria for selection? I noticed that most of the selectees already had established community gardens. A representative from MFN confirmed my suspicion, pointing out that MFN expected that established community gardens have the best potential of both approval by the city's Parks Division and fulfilling the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation grant requirements.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was dimly aware that there were community gardens around the city, and I’ve even been to the largest,
Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens. I originally went to check out their chicken coop. The man we bought coop plans from, Dennis Harrison-Noonan, also designed and built the coop at Troy gardens as a project with his son’s boy scout troop.

Many, if not most, of the people attending the MFN meeting were members of formal organizations that ran existing community gardens. A very loosely knit group of people, formed about five minutes ago, many of whom did not even know each other personally yet, would have to be seen as a weaker candidate for a grant.

I felt defeated - for about a day or so. Then I decided to try organizing a community garden in our neighborhood. Why not expand the notion of a Backyard Nest Egg to include community garden plots, urban orchards in parks, and so on? The largest park in our neighborhood is practically in my back yard – just a block away. Even before the fruit tree opportunity, I often walked through the park, marveling at all the land, and imagining what it might be like to have it planted with gardens.

It’s a huge undertaking. I’ve never organized anything like this before. I’m not at all sure that the people who were willing to be trained to care for a few fruit trees will also commit to what may amount to a long-term effort to get a community garden going. It will involve finding a suitable site, getting approval from the Parks department or schools, if school grounds are selected, seeking funding, and learning how organize and manage the project.

There are multiple stakeholders to contend with. For example, there are two major events that take place annually in the largest park in our neighborhood. If we had a community garden, would these events have to find a new site? I am aware of at least one prominent person in the neighborhood who objected in the past to community gardens in parks because “the parks are for everyone” and “just your group will be gardening.”

He may have a point. On the other hand, wouldn’t a community garden benefit the whole neighborhood in many ways? It could serve as an educational opportunity for children, contribute to food security in the neighborhood, and give us a better chance at the next grant opportunity for trees. Working together to establish and maintain such gardens may also strengthen the sense of community in the neighborhood – a benefit our park board president recognized at the MFN meeting. I hope we can make it happen.

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