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Creating Community with Gardens

Planting, watering and harvesting with neighbors

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As we slip into summer, here on the home farm we are enjoying the sunshine. The combination of late spring rains followed by a heat wave gave our plants the message to grow like crazy. It's good timing because we've increased our ranks. Our labor force has suddenly tripled and we're ecstatic. More hands and eyes taking care of our land can only increase yields. Opening up our garden for others to use and enjoy brings us happiness, too. The more the merrier. For those of you looking to find a community garden of your own, check out any of the groups below. Or find a friendly gardening neighbor or two and ask if they might be willing to trade some fresh garden produce or cut flowers for an extra set of hands.

Before the days of electricity and internet, the majority of people grew their own greens, grains, milk, cheese, butter and meat. As modern Americans, there's nothing more important for our mental and physical health than home food production. Banding together as a group to collaborate offers ample opportunity to blast food production so be prepared to make time to handle harvest, whether eating produce fresh or saving it for later. We're ready to reap the benefits of teamwork.

Growing up on a walnut and citrus orchard in the remote region of Adelaide, just west of Paso Robles, California, helping out neighbors was necessary for survival. Every month I'd attend Farm Bureau meetings with my parents. As I sat and colored quietly as a well-behaved 5 year old (tired from running around all day on the ranch), I soaked in the culture. We heard about rainfall, irrigation, running cattle and the expected market price of alfalfa. Our neighbors either grew walnuts, alfalfa or both. Everyone ran their ranches pretty much independently but some jobs required a second set of hands, and then they'd call a neighbor for assistance. In return, if a neighbor called for help, you'd be there to help within a day.

The wine industry greatly changed the culture of Adelaide. As people planted vineyards, land became more valuable. Some families decided to cash out and move away, while others planted grapes and joined in the fun. Nowadays, a mosaic of land use has spread across the valley. Fourth- and fifth-generation farmers live next to wealthy investors who moved up from Los Angeles. Still local families stay connected. A few years back when my younger sister decided to get married on the family ranch, we called up all the neighbors and asked for help with the ceremony. One lent a tractor, another sold us hay at a good price and others helped with parking cars and running shuttles. Even though they were busy, they put aside responsibilities to celebrate a wedding and come together as a community.

Like any operation involving more than one person, the key to a successful community garden is a clear system: watering, weeding, planting, composting and harvesting. Gardening isn't rocket science but it does take constant attention. If everyone gives minutes, it adds up to hours. We all gravitate toward our favorites. Some of us like peas and cucumbers, others prefer corn and tomatoes, so divide work accordingly. More variety makes for more deliciousness. Plus, according to 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, plants thrive when given as much positive human attention as possible, especially in the form of music. Greenhouse plants grown in an environment with classical music playing every day grew faster and produced more than their counterparts without. So, play and sing and watch your garden thrive.

Even if a person only offers ideas and plant material, it still benefits the garden. Another person may only have time for watering. A different individual might offer three hours of weeding once a week. Also contributing personal creative touches like a painted rocks or a ukulele song will bring a more personal touch. Together we can feed ourselves and our neighbors and friends.

For those of you looking for a community agricultural experience, there are several groups offering ways to get out and garden. In Arcata, Mad River Hospital runs a 2-acre farm that produces 80 percent of produce used in the hospital kitchen. Feeding about 400 people a day, this is a significant operation. Anyone interested in volunteering can call Christie Duray at 822-3621, extension 4133. Volunteers learn organic gardening and take home free produce and lunch from the hospital kitchen. Gardener or not, any community member can visit the café between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., where $5 will buy lunch with organic produce fresh from the garden. The Bayside Park Farm and Community Garden (930 Old Arcata Road) rents out 100-square-foot plots for $80 per year. Individuals can apply online through the city of Arcata website at www.cityofarcata.org or call 822-7091. Just next door to the community garden is the Bayside Park Farm, where people can also volunteer in exchange for fresh organic produce. In Arcata and Eureka, Open Door Health Clinics have established community garden space. To volunteer, call Jen at 269-7073, extension 3369. If you would like an opportunity in another local city, call Matt Drummond with Redwood Coast Action Agency at 269-2001, extension 3071. Drummond has a database with contact information for every community garden in Humboldt County, and can connect gardeners to workshops and learning opportunities.

Whether opening your own vegetable garden to a neighbor or digging into an existing community garden, let's harness the power of small-scale farming. Food security remains an important part of high-quality living and there's no better time to get started than this summer. Happy farming.

Katie Rose McGourty is the owner of Healthy Living Everyday at www.healthy-living-everyday.org.

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