Our Edible Revolution
Shared Gardening as A Communitarian Experiment
By Harry Matthews
Community spirit, in this oft seeming strained political climate, should not be underrated. And what better way could there be to get into that spirit than to join in some gardening with your neighbors? I recently watched a wonderful TED talk that got me thinking what this could ultimately look like. The focus of the talk was a village in north England named Todmorden, in West Yorkshire, that over the years has developed a massive village-wide garden project. Beginning in 2008 a few civic minded villagers, with the support of local officials, began filling many of their public spaces with vegetable beds, fruit trees, and specialized herb gardens (edible and apothecarial). And in the ensuing decade much of the village has gotten involved. Now, everything they grow is freely available to any and all who want it. As one of the organizers of these open and free gardens stated, “It is an act of investing in kindness, in ourselves, and our community’s health that has driven us.”
Living where we do, we are singularly favored with the benefit of some absolutely amazing soil. Often it seems that all one need do here in our Hudson Valley, is drop a seed in the ground, give it the merest amount of love and attention, and it will grow. Welcome to the edible landscape.
Welcome also to a new age of back-to-the-garden farming, a movement that can take many shapes, including some that I like to refer to as “underground gardening.” What do I mean? How about utilizing unused land with the permission of the owner in exchange for part of the yield, or guerrilla gardens where seeds are sown on public land without any permission whatsoever. I’ve even read recently of a loose-knit group of teenagers, also in England, making “seed bombs” filled with native flower seeds that they launch into vacant lots by way of a slingshot. But what interests me more are the community gardens that are finding their way into some of our local towns and villages. What better way of building community than by sharing the bounty of what we growth with those we know?
The recently deceased “Guerrilla Gardener” Adam Purple — who spent many of his later years in the Ellenville area — was a great exponent of this type of activism, constructing a huge community garden in an abandoned lot on the Lower East Side which he called “The Garden of Eden”. Hauling horse manure on a cart pulled by his bike from Central Park, he turned a forgotten trash-filled urban desert into a fertile and dynamically prolific garden that inspired similar efforts throughout New York City and elsewhere around the world, including today’s rebirth gardens of Detroit.
Locally, one can find some great organizations that are more than willing to help similar efforts. The Cornell Cooperative, with outposts in all our counties, gives a wide-ranging number of classes throughout the year, can test your soil for what it might be lacking, and can probably answer any of your questions regarding anything garden-related. Radix, an ecological sustainability center in downtown Albany, has reclaimed several donated blocks into a working year-round project, and goes into schools to engage new generations of urban gardeners and set up other community gardens.
“At the Radix Center, we believe it is possible to meet human needs while simultaneously restoring ecosystems,” they note on their website. “Good environmental stewardship is rewarded by better health, wholesome food, and strong communities. The Radix Center teaches practical skills that can be applied to create environmental and economic sustainability. An emphasis is placed on issues of food security, health, and the remediation of contaminated soils.”
In and around the Saugerties area, members of a local collective — a loose-knit group of enthusiastic growers/farmers, builders, and artisans — has been busying themselves with many projects that have included the building and occupation of tiny houses (mostly mobile), planting community gardens, and hosting garden share days. They also challenge themselves to living with minimal use of both money and fossil fuels. Lately, the collective has teamed up with local elementary and high school students to promote gardening and generally act as an educational and inspirational utopian springboard.
Having participated in a number of the collective’s garden share days myself (“anyone need 30 pounds of zucchini?”), I can attest to the absolutely liberating feeling of cashless transactions. People come to find out what others have been growing and making, and learn new gardening and harvest techniques, while also coming away with armfuls of free fruit, veggies, herbs, nuts, and tinctures to boot. From Hugelkultur (raised beds made from old branches, grass clippings and other compostables) to rain-water catchment systems, vertical hanging gardens, and simple vegetable dehydrators, the information flows freely and the offers of help are honest and plentiful.
Witnessing all of this, even in its infant stage, demonstrates a healthy mix of creativity with altruistic idealism that is both purposefully non-commercial and simply humanistic. Aren’t we all at our best when we can share, giving freely of ourselves, our time, our sweat, and our humanity?
It often seems that our modern technology-heavy society has pushed us indoors and away from each other and the outdoors, locking our faces and fingers onto little glowing screens that seem to do little but suck our souls dry. Gardening seems to be the earthy antithesis of social media. At once you are in the glory of the outdoors, sticking one’s hands into the rich earth. But you’re also sharing that bounty we help our land nurture.
In the end, no gardening endeavor can ever be truly “underground” at all.