May 3, 2010

The Inmates Take Over the Asylum

For the past decade we have taken advantage of a terrific program offered by our community, in which a town-owned field is plowed and marked into 40, 600-square-foot ready-to-plant garden plots. For the munificent sum of $20 per year, we get water, manure, and a site with ample sunlight. It’s a bucolic site with a 4-H sheep encampment across the road. The soil, once dense and prone to flooding, is now well aerated and heavy with organics.

We never thought much about who managed the enterprise. We received a notice each spring in a town envelope and paid our $40 for a double plot at the information desk of town hall. As the years passed, it became evident that one of our fellow gardeners, Lenny, was the ‘manager’ of the site. His principal responsibility seemed to be to run a gas-powered weed-whacker over the paths to the garden. Other than that, it was all very low key.

Then, last year, there appeared to be a change. The heretofore simple set of guidelines for the garden ballooned into a multi-page manifesto that took on an uncomfortably shrill tone. We read the rules with a sense of amusement and made the assumption that they were the work of one of our neighboring gardeners, a woman who is stridently organic and, well, pushy about her views.

There had also been a few things about the garden that irked us. Two water spigots stopped working and were never repaired. Publicity about the availability of plots was almost non-existent with the result that some gardeners could claim three parcels. Other gardens were quickly abandoned by people who discovered that keeping a plot weed-free required actual time and labor. The result was in a town with a strong interest in fresh foods, there were weed-filled plots next to an oligarchy of triple-plot empires. We brought up the subject with one of our town’s selectmen and followed it with a letter outlining the issues.

In October, Betty and I found ourselves appointed to the Community Gardens Committee (who knew?). More surprising, upon being sworn in (we took the oath of office, administered by the town clerk, in her office), we quickly thereafter discovered ourselves to be the only members of the committee, the long-time chairman having finally found someone willing to take on the role, and so resigning. We asked about the woman whom we suspected had authored the revised garden rules. No, she was not a committee member.

In February, we took our overhaul of the Community Garden rules to the town’s Conservation Commission, who listened and then gave us their blessing.

The garden opened this past weekend. There are now six, half-sized plots for those who want to dip their toe into the water without committing to a 600 square-foot garden. Triple plots had been outlawed. The spigots are being fixed as this is written. An evening seminar on good gardening was held in April and there were multiple newspaper articles announcing availability of plots in the garden. The ‘guidelines’ fit comfortably on one page.

We’re being pushy in one way: if a garden isn’t being worked by the middle of the month, the owner forfeits it to one of the people on the waiting list. There will be no weedy lots this year.

It’s a modest start. When she swore us in, the town clerk warned us that ‘people don’t like big changes’. Maybe we’ll be deposed in a coup d’etat by the rabidly organic crowd. For 2010, anyway, the inmates are in charge of the asylum.

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