“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Agriculture is defined as the science, art, and business of cultivating soil, producing crops and raising cattle. It is more commonly referred to as farming. Without it, society as we know it would not exist. It has enabled people to put down roots which provided the means for the world’s population to expand. Unfortunately, it has also been transformed by industrialization into a widely abused system that is dependent on government subsidies and environmentally unsound practices in order to produce food products with less nutritional value and poorer taste. Furthermore, the existing agriculture system is controlled by an increasingly small number of international firms.
However, grassroots efforts and individuals are choosing to look at food in a different way, a way that seems to be able to co-exist with ecosystems. A viable option that has been employed in the past, but since forgotten, is the community garden.
A community garden is any vacant land that is used for growing food and is accessible to community members. Not only do these gardens provide healthy food to demographics that many not otherwise have access, but it improves the overall quality of life in the community by reducing crime, encouraging exercise, and encourages people to have pride in their neighborhood. However, the benefits of community gardens are not limited to the community. Instead, the effects impact the whole ecosystem.
Many community gardens have strict rules about the methods members can employ, and choose to model organic farming methods. Those rules include limiting or banning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Some community gardens also ban certain species of plants that have been proven to attract pests or have no predators to limit spreading.
Community gardens limit non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, because of the effects that they can have on human, animal, and environmental health which allows for the natural qualities of soil and the ecosystem to shine.
Soil is an essential part of the growing environment and without healthy soil, one would not be able to produce healthy plants. Ideal soil for plants is composed of 25% air, 45% minerals, 25% water and 5% organic material. This mix allows for plant roots to efficiently breathe and absorb nutrients and water. However, different plants prefer different mixes of minerals and will tolerate varying degrees of acidity and moisture.
To create ideal soil that is rich in nutrients, well-aerated, and free from disease, many community gardens employ composting methods. Compost is the process of breaking down organic material. The result is a very dark, rich addition to any garden.
Compost is created by putting Nitrogen rich items (greens-vegetable scraps, lawn cuttings, and coffee grounds) and Carbon-rich items (browns-shredded cardboard, sawdust, and leaves) together into a well-ventilated space and mixing with water. The ideal ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen is 25-30:1. This mixture can heat up to 150 degrees from the work of macro and micro-organisms. The increased heat speeds up the breakdown process, and when coupled with Red Wiggler Worms, can reduce the decomposition time to only a few weeks.
Finished compost helps to reduce water use because it is will hold 6X’s more water than traditional soil. It also provides nutrients that would not otherwise be available to plants. This reduces and/or eliminates the need for any non-organic fertilizers, reducing cost and environmental impact while gardeners enjoy similar, if not better results.
Another benefit of compost is that it creates stronger plants, and can help to eliminate the need for pesticides. Pesticides include anything designed to destroy fungus, weed, insect or disease. These synthetic killers are non-discriminatory in their effects, and could just as easily kill family pets as insects. This harm could come from direct consumption, water-run off or from residual traces of chemicals in the soil.
To further reduce the needs for pesticides, community gardens encourage and use “beneficial” pests. These are insects that are carnivorous and indigenous to the area. The most popular versions of these bugs are Praying Mantises, spiders, Ladybugs and Lacewings. It must also be noted that one should not introduce too many of one species or too many in general in order to maintain a balance.
When gardens choose not to introduce beneficial pests into the garden, they often choose to use other methods to protect their plants. Covering plants in light-weight netting can deter all insects but does not allow for pollination.
Another option is companion planting, such as putting onions or garlic with almost any plant, or celery with plants in the cabbage family. By planting certain plants together, the smells naturally detract invasive species. Marigolds, nasturtiums, and rosemary are also very pungent smelling and deter many pests.
As in any scenario, some problems arise with community gardens, including issues with existing soil, cultural sensitivities, unfavorable weather and the question of sustainability.
Since community gardens use whatever space is available, and the modern version originated in urban areas where the environmental impact of humans is greater than in rural areas. One of the biggest problems community gardens find is the presence of lead in the soil. Lead is devastating to life and is not easy to remove from soil.
Cultural sensitivities are also difficult to deal with, as they are generally historically rooted. In cities such as Chicago and Detroit, some groups are associating community gardening with slavery. This is difficult to deal with because community gardens are dependent on community involvement.
Weather can also impact the effectiveness of community gardens, especially in cooler climates. To deal with weather problems, community gardens use cold frames and wind tunnels. These structures help to regulate temperature and keep out harsh winds and snows. Sometimes, community gardens will couple these methods with cold hardy plants to lengthen the growing season.
The biggest concern that surrounds community gardens is their capacity to feed a large number of people since the population is not getting smaller and everyone needs to eat. There is a large amount of unused space in cities throughout America, but it is unclear if people are willing to utilize it for food production and put forth the effort needed to transform dilapidated neighborhoods.
While the concept of community gardens is not a new idea, society is in a unique situation that could revitalize their presence in towns and city throughout the country. This revival could help improve ecosystems everywhere, redistribute wealth and resources, encourage and the American agricultural system as a whole, or at least I think so!
For more information, check out this website about the steps needed to start a community garden:
Environmental Working Group. (n.d.) Farming: Farm Subsidies. Retrieved from https://farm.ewg.org/
Pidwirny, Michael. (2013). Soil. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/article/Soil
Runk, David. (2010). Lead, other chemicals taint some urban gardens. Times Union
Smith, Edward C. The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. North Adams: Storey, 2010.