November 10, 2013

The Garden Ogre Goes Back Into His Cave

Betty and I secured a plot in the Medfield Community Garden a year after we moved back to New England in 1999.  From our first year, though, we noticed that the garden seemed to be run for the benefit of a few families who staked out multiple plots for themselves, did little maintenance, and imposed a three-page-long list of rules that amounted to a screed against the use of anything contrary to their idea of ‘organic’ principles.
A Google maps view of the
garden, circa 2009.  It has
since been enlarged.
We complained – to no avail – to the ‘committee’ and then to a town selectman who looked into it and found that the garden was under the auspices of the town’s Conservation Commission.  We spoke to a member of the Commission who nodded in all the right places.  A few months later, we were called into the Town Clerk’s office and sworn in as members of the Community Garden Committee.
Which is when we found out that we were the only members of the Committee; the others having finally found suckers to take their place, and promptly resigned.  The one who had written the garden rule, as it turns out, wasn't even a committee member.
That was six years ago.  I dredge up this bit of ancient history because, this weekend, the garden was plowed under for the season by a farmer from a neighboring town.  The garden’s year is officially over.
The garden in April...
I like to think that Betty and I have made some improvements in the running of the Community Garden.  For one thing, it is now considerably larger: 30,000 square feet of gardens plus ancillary walkways, compost piles, and whatnot; call it an acre in all.  There are fifty, 600-square-foot plots; about ten of which are further subdivided into 300-square-foot plots so that those with smaller gardening aspirations can still get their hands dirty.  We can offer plots to up to sixty families each season while charging just $20 per full plot or $15 per half plot (which pays for two plowings, the delivery of compost and manure, and on-site water).  For another thing, the gardening ‘guidelines’ fit nicely on one page.
... and at the end of June
We work with the town to bring in wood chips to keep weeds out of the paths, and well-composted manure to provide fertilizer.  A soil test done on the garden last spring showed that the garden is 18% ‘organics’ – no other fertilizer is needed.  The garden is plowed under in the fall, overspread with manure over the winter, and then harrowed in the spring.  That fact that after twelve years at its current site, the garden is now a full foot higher than the surrounding field speaks volumes.
Betty’s job is garden advisor.  She gives a vegetable gardening lecture to a standing-room crowd each March at the Medfield Library, and then fields a continuing string of questions as the season progresses.  For her, the questions are a gold mine:  they tell her what is on the mind of both beginning and experienced gardeners which, in turn, allows her to fine-tune her presentations to garden clubs and civic groups. 
She fields many queries while she works our plot.  Most questions, though, arrive via email and Betty responds with page-long answers that include links to university and extension service websites.  As a result, Betty has been given the title of 'garden guru', and properly so.
Back in the bad old days, garden
plots would be abandoned
In addition to mowing and weed-whacking the garden perimeter, my job is garden ogre.  Garden communications are via email and the ones I send out over the course of the season are invariably of the nagging variety. In April and May I am telling people that they need to show ‘evidence of gardening’ or else their plot will be given away. This is because, in the bad old days, people would sign up for a plot, find it actually involved effort, and abandon their garden to the weeds.  Those weeds would become everyone’s problem.  Now, any garden that is not worked by the middle of May gets turned over to someone on a waiting list.
... and in August, when
everything ripens.
As the season progresses, I tell people, gently at first and then stridently if follow-up communications are needed, to clear weeds from the walking aisles, trim back vegetables that are causing their fences to bulge into the aisles, get the excess weeds out of their plots and, in August, to get their blankety-blank sweet potato and squash vines out of the aisles.
Then comes the end-of-season cleanup campaign.  I am aware that many community gardens allow permanent fences.  To me, this promotes insularity and a sense of a closed community.  In Medfield, all gardens must be taken down by the end of October. “Taken down” means fences, but also includes stalks and vines that must be bagged up and completely removed from the vicinity together with anything that might be diseased.  Weeds should be chucked to the perimeter of the garden.  All that should remain is stuff that the tractor can easily plow under.
It is during October that I begin signing emails with the title ‘Garden Ogre’.  The vast majority of our gardeners are responsible.  A minority have either an unwarranted sense of entitlement or some aversion to meeting deadlines.  I walk the garden every week noting who is putting off their cleanup work and I start sending out ‘reminders’.  If it gets to be the middle of the month and the garden still shows no sign of cleanup activity, the tone of my emails becomes downright unfriendly.
The response to these emails varies from a wake-up call that finally gets them out on a chilly Saturday morning to a petulant reply from one family that “they have small children and preparing for Halloween is more important.”  Guess which family will not be invited back for the 2014 season?
Ready for next year.
I walked the garden one final time on Saturday morning.  I pulled a dozen or so stakes and some landscape fabric that had been buried by mulch. The garden was otherwise clean of debris.  Later this month, I’ll send out notes to each plot holder asking if they want to return for 2014 and, if so, to what size garden.  That survey will tell me how much ‘marketing’ needs to be done to fill the spaces next year.

It is a satisfying bit of public service.  A fair number of the notes I receive from my fellow gardeners make a point of praising the work Betty and I do to keep the enterprise running.  Best of all, my fellow gardeners are a great group of people whom I would otherwise likely never get to know.  
What more can an ogre ask?  Well,, a donkey sidekick would be nice...

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