Why so much trouble getting community gardens to take root?

Why so much trouble getting community gardens to take root?

I really appreciate the article in the Monday April 16th paper. The garden on Broadway maintained by the West Memphis First United Methodist church is invaluable.

The question is, if community gardens are such a good thing, why is it so dang hard to start another one in the area? I know of at least two people who have actively attempted to start gardens, with absolutely zero success in over two years, stymied by local governments.

One is in Marion, where Pastor James Hudson has attended numerous city council meetings and had gotten some tentative approval to use city land just north of Brunetti Field, waiting only for a call from the Mayor to Pastor Hudson and two other's to move forward. This effort was (is) intended to be one form of community garden, where the lot is worked up, planted with easy quick growing greens or other vegetables, and could be picked by whomever might have a need for free. Pastor Hudson does this already in his home garden. Thus far the call has never came and no direction has been given as to how to get the ball moving again.

I myself have attempted to start a garden in at least two locations, with a third possible, however encounters with West Memphis Planning Commission while polite and professional, have been the primary roadblock.

Location one, could have been epic. A local community service non-profit agreed to allow use of well over an acre of land, where not only a community garden could be started, but enough room to have possibly multiple types of community gardens in one location. Pick as needed, Rental plots, demonstration garden( s) and more if the interest was there. However when attempting to go through proper channels, it was denied before even getting an application to fill out (didn't even know applications existed) since the land in question, was part of a large single parcel, which already had a nonprofit on it which gave away items to those in need. The only way the garden might be considered, as I understood the conversation, would be if everything was free. Or as my faulty memory recalls, something about 'cross purposes on the same parcel'. (note, in my reading of the available ordinances, gardening is allowed in all and every zoning category, but I'm no lawyer).

Location two, one acre not far from the first. While this one fell through mainly due to the landowner who initially and verbally agreed to allow use for a community garden backed out when asked to formalize the agreement in writing, did at least allow me to get to the point of getting the West Memphis Planning Commission application. I did not complete it since the land was no longer available, however it was illuminating. There were questions about parking, handicapped parking etc. No problem as of course people have to be able to get there, and park, and it should obviously be available to any and all regardless of physical challenges, but doesn't a handicapped parking spot normally go near the front door of a business? This lot had no structures.. I guess the required number of spaces could just be scattered so there is one close to most any part of the garden. No direction was given. What about community gardens which might be an abandoned lot with no parking other than the street.

Ideally, Ideally, there would not be -a- community garden but many. Many small abandoned lots, converted to fresh, chemical free, hand worked fruits and vegetables in every neighborhood, where no one is farther away from a garden than they can walk if able. Some may have the look of a typical country garden worked by a group of neighbors and shared equally. Some may be near apartments so that those who have a love of gardening, but no land due to apartment living, can rent an 'allotment' or bed(s), with the fees going to supporting and improving the infrastructure of the garden for all.

Community gardens can be instructional, demonstration spaces, places where chipped up trees and leaves can be composted, used as mulch to enrich the soil, suppress weeds, reduce landfill bulk, save the city money by reducing trips and fees a the landfill and yes.. even help feed the community.

Thinking back, at one point, I worked as a nurse at a local preschool, I offered to start a garden there.. No cost to the business.. and was told I could, however, the kids couldn't eat anything that was grown in it, despite it being completely chemical free. Why? The preschoolers, had to eat what came through the 'government program'. So, plastic wrapped rice krispy treats were good, organic tomatoes the kids helped grow are verboten.

We live in a society, in a county and communities that reportedly have both an obesity crisis – and food insecurity – at the exact same time. (insert very puzzled look here). This county is almost completely agriculturally based, and 'food' is scarce and hard to obtain? West Memphis is working to reduce blight. There are acres, and acres of abandoned lots across both of the largest towns in the county, open areas that could be growing food, instead of weeds, and trash, and hiding crime.

Land that could be feeding adults, kids, bodies and souls.. for want of some effort, mulch and seed. If only… if only…

I worked in I.T. for 15 years in international companies. One thing I remember a manager saying. 'My job, as a manager, is to remove obstacles. The best people, the best teams, the best technologies will always encounter obstacles, boulders in the path, my role is to clear the way so that my team(s) can succeed.'

If community gardens are such a good thing, If they might be even a -part- of the solution, both to food insecurity and blight reduction. If people really believe food insecurity really and truly exists, then lets put out boots and hoes where our mouths are. Remove those boulders from the path to food, and all it takes is… permission.

I completed a Permaculture Design Certificate course through Oregon State University, specifically to try to learn ways to grow more food, over time, in less space, and with less effort and resources. Not all gardens have to be tilled, and worked, and fertilized, and watered, and weeded. Some can be planted, and with patience, food just arrives. but it takes patience and planning and long term commitment. We can grow annual veggies in some places, and plant fruit trees, berry bushes, eatable shrubs, self seeding root vegetables. Every garden need not be laser straight rows with sterile ground between. It can look more like a park, where the shade tree gives peaches, the bench is under an arbor draped in cucumbers, where the decorative ground cover is dug up in the fall revealing potatoes. A hedge of berries.

I hear over and over, 'we need water, who's going to provide the water'. This area averages about 43 inches of rain per year. A 1000 square foot space, be it a house roof, concrete pad or soil, gets over 30,000 gallons of water delivered directly to it each year. Free. Delivered, no processing or treatment needed. Instead of hurrying it off the land in ditches, culverts and drainage's, catch it, hold it and put it to use before it leaves. Remember, water from the hose, is the same as water that you drink. If we use rain water for gardens, then that's less of a load on the water treatment system. Think there's not enough water? Look at those abandoned lots. All growed up, trees, bushes, weeds, grass, so thick you can barely walk through it, unless it is cleared, mowed and pruned. Plenty of nutrients and water for that, why not for fruit trees instead of oak, why not raspberries instead of privet, Why not turnips and kale and lettuce and strawberries instead of grass?

Does it work, well I'm trying to find out, at least on my little corner lot. Sold the tiller, would love to get rid of the lawn mower. The goal is an attractive yard, front and back, where pretty much everything is eatable, and a significant amount of my diet (as well as a portion of my neighbors) comes from no farther than next door.

So, my challenge to any that read this, newspaper articles make good reading, but people don't eat newspapers. If the citizens, neighbors and elected or appointed officials truly want to make a change: 1) Municipalities: provide land that is currently unused, abandoned, unsafe and/or costing money to maintain, to those willing to commit to turning it into some version of food producing community gardening. (there are many many versions).

2) If the municipalities are unable or unwilling to provide the land, at least make it much easier for individuals or groups to do so.

3) Individuals and groups. Show up, show up with boots and gloves and muscles to do the work needed to start a garden and keep it going.

I could go on and on. I weary of hearing of kids in elementary school on insulin and blood pressure medications while we bemoan inadequate diets and inactivity. I shake my head at magazine picture perfect lawns kept so with 'Weed & Feed' by the bag, zero turn mowers that cost more than my car on 1/4 acre residential lots while reading about the 'poor economy'. I now actively shun 'churches' who shout from the pulpits and sing from the lofts about feeding the least of these.. as the hired lawn contractors ensure the acres around the facility are perfectly manicured and weed free. We have money and space and resources for sports of all kinds, a most worthy thing of course, but depend on Kroger, Walmart and Save-A-Lot for our nutrition (not even getting into the topic of cheap mass produced fast food).

Government, and yes even individuals.. I call on you, if you really believe this is important. It's simple. Plant something. Allow others to plant something. Get on board, or at least, get out of the way and remove those boulders in our way.

David Corbett, RN, LPN, EMT- A, is a resident of Marion, Arkansas.

By David Corbett Guest Commentary