by ANNA RABHAN
For several months, the Organic Adventurer has been examining different ways to get local and organic food- organic grocers, farmers markets, food co-ops and CSAs. It’s time now to take a look at the one way to have ultimate control over where your food comes from and how it’s grown: Grow it yourself! Of course, our modern life presents challenges that tend to stymie many would-be backyard farmers. The lack of time, know-how and space (a particular challenge in Jacksonville with its abundance of apartments, condos and urban lots) can all be addressed with the simple concept of the community garden. The American Community Gardening Association states that benefits of community gardens include community development, neighborhood beautification, social interaction and the reduction of family food budgets among many others. Let’s visit a community garden in Jacksonville, though, to see what these gardens are all about and how they function in the context of our community.
Argyle Area Community Garden, like a lot of opportunities for getting organic food, is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Tucked away on a tree farm off of Blanding Boulevard, this unassuming little plot of land is carefully tended by a growing number of mostly Westside and Orange Park residents. Like many of Jacksonville’s community gardens, it’s a fairly new endeavor. In 2009, land owner Tom Dumas wanted to turn part of his tree farm into a community garden. “The single thing we can do is start reconnecting with the earth through growing our own food. That one simple act multiplied by many people can do incredible things for our health. If we all started doing this, it would be a different planet,” says Dumas. His post on the Argyle Community Garden Meetup.com website caught the attention of veteran nonprofit organizer Sandi Newman. There are now over 60 gardeners on the Meetup site, and Newman is the garden’s Managing Member.
Argyle, like most other community gardens, has crafted a statement in order to focus its activities. Their slogan, “Creating a sustainable community and abundant health through reconnecting with the land” is not just a collection of words to AACG members. Their focus on community was evident in the fact that several garden members spoke to the Organic Adventurer together rather than leaving it up to Newman to be their spokesperson. Member Viqui Hilliard says, “I think that people really need a sense of community right now. That whole process of integrating oneself into a community and developing that sense of belonging and sharing and seeing those benefits is very important, particularly now during the recession when people are struggling so much.”
There are individual plots available at AACG for $60 a year, but they encourage membership in the community plot for only $24 a year plus a few volunteer hours a month. The details are explained in their member agreement and liability waiver, something one would encounter at just about any community garden. Most community gardens offer individual plots, some offer group plots for families and organizations, but few encourage all members to work together in the same garden plot. Argyle members also make decisions about the garden together, share seeds and starts, and contribute their individual talents to improve the garden. Hilliard says, “There was only so much energy and drive we could bring to [our home garden]. Here, we get to feed off the energy and drive of the other members, and it’s been a much more rewarding, much happier process.” The group meets every Wednesday starting at 4 or 5 pm depending on the season, they have frequent Saturday gatherings, and there seems to always be someone out there working. This is another point of comparison among community gardens. Some groups meet regularly, while other gardens’ members come and go to tend their individual plots.
Argyle Area Community Garden also reaches out to the surrounding community. Newman is making plans to offer classes at the garden through the Duval Extension Office. “Instead of being in a sterile classroom,” Newman says, “we’re right next to a garden where we can walk over and see [the topic of instruction].” She has already begun by talking to an area group of seniors about the garden and what they could grow in containers on their patios. Argyle members are planning a seed and start sale as a fundraiser for the garden but also as a way to get hard-to-find organic seeds and plants out into the community. The members would like to make the garden handicapped accessible, install a children’s garden, include art in the garden, and institute a program to donate a portion of the harvest. As Newman puts it, “We have big dreams!”
The garden achieves the “sustainable” part of its “sustainable community” goal by being a totally organic community garden. Some community gardens have no such requirement, and some simply prefer that their members use organic practices. The Argyle garden is fortunate in the ease with which it can implement such practices. It is sited right next to a spring-fed pond and backs up to a horse and buggy business that donates manure for fertilizer. Members have also created a composting area and test their soil regularly. They don’t, and haven’t had to, use pesticides because of the health of the soil and the plants. They have also used all salvaged and recycled materials for projects such as the construction of the pump house. They use organic seeds and plant starts as well. As a result of this good stewardship, members say that they are able to get a large portion of the vegetables for their tables from the garden.
Eating from the garden has already made a huge impact on one member in particular. Says Newman: “Austin Pool is our poster boy for organic eating.” Pool heard about the garden in March of 2010 and, in an effort to improve his health and with no previous gardening experience, he joined. Since then, he has lost 85 pounds and says that joining the community garden “has completely changed my life for the better.” He’s not just talking about his health either. The life lessons he’s learned from the garden have given him a sense of purpose. He now knows he wants to pursue a career dealing with food. “It’s given me a direction to go in with my life, and that’s something I didn’t have before.”
Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Duval County Extension Office’s Mary Puckett, who has provided much guidance to groups wanting to establish gardens, there are a number of such community gardens in Jacksonville (http://duval.ifas.ufl.edu/lg_urban_gardening.shtml). However, they are run by various groups with no governing body. Therefore, seeking out a community garden can be a challenge. The Garden at Jackson Square will try to remedy that with a Seed Swap and Community Garden Expo from 10 am to 2 pm on March 19 (www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=157719327614290). So if your itchy green thumb is limited by space constraints or you just want a little sunshine, exercise and camaraderie, no matter what your gardening experience, take the advice of Argyle Area Community Garden’s Sandi Newman: “Check into it. Don’t be afraid. It’s not a commitment to inquire.”
The Organic Adventurer-March 2011
by ANNA RABHAN