Old neighorhoods, new gardensPosted: April 8, 2010
After a night of heavy March rain, Humberto Mendoza stands in crisp morning air in an empty lot of grass and young trees behind three homes in Pinewood Estates North. He points to a flow of rainwater still streaming down a slow grade and soaking the earth at his feet; his boots impress the damp soil, too moist to grow most vegetables. He backs up a few yards to a flatter, drier stamp of land. In a few weeks time, Mendoza and his neighbors will turn this surplus yard into a thriving community garden, feeding at least seven families in this largely Hispanic mobile home park off Highway 29 outside the Athens by-pass.
Tomatillos. Tomatoes. They’ll plant all the “Mexican favorites,” Mendoza said with a smile – maybe even his beloved papalo quelite, a leafy herb used in salsa, can find some room.
Back inside the loop, a different form of garden grows along the steep slopes of Tanyard Creek in the Reese and Pope neighborhood. Followers of an organic agricultural method called permaculture work to “restore the ecology of the creek while also creating an educational model of food production in an urban setting,” Athens Permaculture spokesperson Evan McGown said. “A site for people to visit and be inspired.”
Both gardens are tiny spurs in a city, state and nation-wide community garden movement. The American Community Garden Association estimates over 18,000 rooted in U.S. soil; the Atlanta Community Food Bank shades so many gardens (175) they need a coordinator to watch over the harvest.
School gardens grow as quickly as their students in Clarke County; a multi-family garden entrenched itself years ago in the Brooklyn neighborhood near Pauldoe; and pre-built raised beds wait for soil at the Athens Community Council on Aging.
David Berle counts at least 20 different local organizations currently planting or planning on starting a community garden. The associate professor of horticulture shares his time, knowledge and toil with a number of them. He plans on sending his service-learning students out to Pinewood.
Community gardens are so bountiful in Athens that local gardening and food activists applied for a USDA grant that would fund a coordinator to improve knowledge and resource sharing between gardens.
Independent groups have planted for some time, and new desires appear every season, but the “history is we all haven’t talked to each other very much,” Berle said. If grant money appears – they’ll know by July – they’ll figure out which non-profit or city department would best house the position, a full-time job as “food issues don’t stop at the end of the summer.”
Mendoza and his brother fix engines in their driveway 50 feet away from the Pinewood plot. Car grease coats his hands and sweater. He’ll add garden manager to his workload soon, and dirt will join the oil stains.
“The goal is to get together neighbors,” Mendoza said. “A place for people to sit and talk.”
Mendoza has a history of social justice organizing, and recently joined five other Athenians at the March for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. But his rallying efforts lack resonance with Pinewood residents. As a community activist, Mendoza asks his neighbors what their needs are. He said they often confuse social justice as purely political and don’t want to get involved. They said they did want to build a garden, though, so he hopes they can get together, grow tomatoes and “maybe talk about social justice.”
Gardens create a “healthy space in a community,” Athens Land Trust Conservation Coordinator Laura Hall said. Hall marshaled ACTION, Inc. grant money toward Pinewood as part of ACTION’s neighborhood-strengthening Green Partners program. Mendoza will earn a stipend for acting as site manager, as well as translator and facilitator for ACTION and Berle’s students.
Pinewood resident Karla Sotomayor already grows tomatoes and watermelons around her kid’s swing set outside their home. She hopes the garden will lure neighbors away from their TVs. Gardening has inedible rewards, she said. But proving that to neighbors requires longevity, dedication, communication and courage: “People become less encouraged when they don’t see results.”
Tanyard Creek needs help, said ACC Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee. Years of illegal dumping trashed it and the city doesn’t “want to make it worse.”
“It’s a water quality issue,” Lonnee said. City and state codes seek to prevent land disturbance near flowing water, so Athens Permaculture submitted and received an Environmental Areas Permit for the garden. Their organic repair may prove to be a “win-win” situation.
Permaculture stresses design in which “humans and nature interact in ways that are mutually beneficial,” McGown said. Stretching along the southern side of the creek, with hopes of a foot bridge to the north bank, the garden will focus on perennial producers – fruit trees and bushes, herbs, wild self-maintainers like rosemary and blueberries. Nature itself will be the main gardener – “humans are designers here, not laborers.”
Before nature takes over, humans must sweat.
A dozen volunteers met March 20 to uproot kudzu and honeysuckle to form an erosion barrier called a swale. They dug a 30-yard ditch and filled it with wood chips and mulch, added compost and planted blueberries. As rain runs off the unpaved parking lot at the top of the creek’s slope, water will slowly release through the swale and into the soil instead of overflowing Tanyard Creek with dirty runoff.
McGown said two forces draw people to community gardens. One is tangible: people want to know where their food comes from.
The second is invisible, and “more important in the long run”: humans long to reconnect with nature, its cycles, other humans and “focus on happiness as well as hardware.”
But to strengthen neighborhoods and shift culture in such a way, “we’ve got to throw a better party,” he said. “And community gardens are better than a parking lot.”