Thursday, June 09, 2016

Our Urban Farm

We've now been living with a green house for about a year. The goal was to provide the opportunity for the children of Woodland Park to develop stronger connections with the food they eat and their natural world through a robust urban gardening program.

As with all new things, we struggled in the beginning, but now we're hitting our stride, even as we still have a long way to go.

When a family enrolls in a cooperative school, the parents commit themselves to working one day a week with me as an assistant teacher, but each family is also responsible for performing one of the many "jobs" that go into making a school function. What is making our gardening program function so far is that we have committed three parents to the job of "gardener." Over the years, we've made efforts to grow a garden at our school, with some successes, but mostly failures, mainly because we've not, as a community, maintained the patient year-round consistency required to really grow food productively.

Our process has been less one of planning and more one of group experimentation. As things stand right now, we have our "grazing gardens" on the playground. These are the beds we've filled largely with lettuces, kale, snap peas, nasturtiums, herbs, and a few berries. The idea is that this is where the children can freely engage with the garden, watering to their hearts' content, digging around in the worm bin, and sampling the produce. This tends to result in muddy beds and lots of barren stalks and vines because the kids devour pretty much anything out there. We've had a garden on the playground long enough to know that this is how it happens. For instance, we've had blueberries and raspberries growing out there for the past few years and we have never, never seen a ripe berry: they all get picked too early, tasted, and rejected.

The first red tomato we've ever produced!

Until the advent of the green house, we were forever struggling with the balance between allowing the children to love their garden to death and allowing the garden to actually grow. I think this is the spring in which we're turning that corner.

The green house and it's surrounding garden sits on the opposite side of the building from the playground. It is a place where we only take smaller groups of children, those who have chosen to "work in the green house," which usually means planting seeds, watering, and studying the less ravaged plants we have growing out there. The rest of the time, we're using the area as a kind of farm, in which we are growing new food plants to replace the old ones the children have devoured. For instance, there are several flats of lettuces, kale, and spinach growing in anticipation of the day when they will get moved to the grazing garden. We have a crop of snap peas thriving over there and each morning I harvest all the ripe ones to augment the few teeny, tiny ones we find and pick in the grazing garden. We also have raspberries and blue berries over there for the same reason.

We've located our nightshade plants (tomatoes and bell peppers) on the greenhouse side because the leaves aren't compatible with a grazing garden and honestly, we don't want those plants to suffer the same fate as the berries. As it is, my estimate is that we lose one green tomato for every one two or three year old who visits the green house. The same goes for vine plants like squash and cucumbers, those slow-growing plants with the big blossoms that are irresistible "picking flowers," which of course means we never get to see the fruit when they grow in the grazing garden.

The goal right now as summer is upon us is to create such a bounty that it carries us through the fall, always trying to find a balance between growing food and enthusiastic children, which is an uneasy one at best. Still, it seems to me that the main thing is to just grow an abundance of food knowing that a certain percentage of it will be sacrificed to play. Indeed, I've been telling people that I've come to realize that we don't have a gardening program at all, but rather an urban farming program, the sort of thing that I can't imagine doing without the commitment of our parent community.

And one day, we hope, we will be producing so much food that we will be taking our excess to local food banks to feed our wider community.

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1 comment:

Lisa said...

Hi Tom, greetings from Cape Town, South Africa. I am a regular visitor of your blog, and regularly share your inspiring writings with friends. Just wanted to I nearly cried at the marvelous beauty of your garden. I remember an earlier blog post (was it over a year ago?) where you wrote about finally getting round to planning a real garden project... wonderful to see it all springing to green life. Lisa