Symphony of the Soil, Part II

When I teamed up with fellow activists, Mary Jo Aagerstoun of EcoArt South Florida and Brian Kirsch of Gray Mockingbird Community Garden, to bring Symphony of the Soil, Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary, to a packed Muvico cinema in West Palm Beach last year, I had no idea that 14 months later, I would be up to my own elbows in dark, rich-with-compost soil and a new community garden.

This project, a first-of-its-kind partnership between CROS Ministries, the gleaning organization that supplies thousands of pounds of food to local food pantries, and my home congregation, 1st UU of the Palm Beaches, is itself symphonic in that it is composed of many different elements blending harmoniously.  As our minister, Rev. CJ McGregor, realized that 1st UU has plenty of well-drained open land on the congregation’s property, most of it bathed by 6-8 hours of sunlight, year round, he didn’t need much persuading to take the next logical step.  CROS Ministries brings dedication to feeding people in need, experienced volunteers, and growing knowhow.  Gleaning director, Keith Cutshall, has the patience and kindness of someone with deep practice in soil management, growing vegetables, and working with volunteers of all ages. CROS Ministries also supplied its own truck for transport of soil, mulch and other necessaries.

garden expansion1We received a gift of dark, compost-rich soil from Green Cay Farm, the life and work of Ted Winsberg, farmer, soil scientist, and local philanthropist.  Ted and his wife, Trudy, are well-known in their community of Boynton Beach as instrumental in the creation of Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center on 170 acres they sold to Palm Beach County for one-third of its appraised value in 1997, specifically for that purpose.  Ted also provided our project five sturdy wood frames for the raised beds, all built of recycled lumber on his farm.

This enabled us to follow the no-till method of raised bed growing, developed by the University of Florida Extension, originally introduced to us by the garden founder, the late Wayne Reynolds, after whom the garden is named.  In addition to saving enormous amount of labor, albeit supplied by an enthusiastic team of volunteers within the congregation, a not unimportant side benefit of the no-till method is that no heavy earth-moving equipment is needed so the surrounding area is left unscarred.   When you’re planting among established trees and shrubbery, the value of this is obvious. First, we had to determine an overall layout for the garden.  For aesthetic reasons, we decided to organize the boxes in a semi-cigarden expansion17 step 1rcle around existing vegetation, mulching around them so the whole becomes a no-mow area. Mulching on the planted areas after seeds sprout, will also help conserve water. Thanks to another generous gift, we will be investigating drip and soaker hose type irrigation. Ground cloth goes down first, right on the grass, followed by the wooden frame which helps anchor it.  Keith Cutshall had picked up the wood boxes from Green Cay Farm earlier in the week and delivered them to our site.

garden expansion 18garden expansion 20

Recycled cardboard — the kind of sturdy box-stock movers, supermarkets and liquor stores have in abundance for the asking, get split and laid over the cloth next.  This also helps keep the soil moist and the grass out of the growing area.  Soil was hand shoveled from the truck and hauled over by wheelbarrow and bucket.

You can see a little bit of our earlier experiment with cinderblock for a raised bed in the above photo.   Wood looks more attractive, but cinder block can be painted and the open areas can also be used for planting complementary herbs or marigolds to control pests without artificial additives.  Here is the sugar snap pea bed, readygarden expansion5 for the time when they need a place to climb.  Just look at the color of the soil! Seeds — pole beans, peppers, tomatoes and sugar snap peas — were also donated by Eden Organic Nursery Service, and El Sol‘s Sunshine Community Garden, already a partner of the congregation, supplied us with hardy tomato seedlings.  El Sol’s weekday hot lunch program will be the beneficiary of our harvest of fresh, locally-grown vegetables.  CROS Ministries will remain on the project, Keith assured us, their volunteers helping ours to tend the growing beds from now through harvest time, and beyond.  When the work was done for this sunny, cool Saturday, we celebrated with an ample lunch supplied by another 1st UU volunteer.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone — just another day in the life of a constantly surprised convert to the power of growing food and community.

Why Compost?

Because it is a zero waste strategy ~ Because it restores and remediates the soil  ~ Because it is quiet activism you can do without leaving home or carrying protest signs

Today, thousands of young people like Rachel Walsh of Transition Tallahassee are in Washington to protest against the KXL Pipeline, much as my spouse and I did last summer in the Walk for Our Grandchildren.  Standing up, speaking out, boycotts, even subjecting one self to arrest, are effective ways to oppose injustice in all its forms.   If enough people participate, e.g. Gandhi’s march to the sea, the March on Selma, even the original Boston Tea Party, these actions can rock the known world.

Jean's compostWhat if take-to-the-streets activism of this nature isn’t in your nature?  Food activism, in which composting is a key element, is the perfect local DIY project that contributes to a healthier, more sustainable community right away.  As the documentary, Symphony of the Soil (now available in DVD) showed us, reclaiming our soil even on a small-scale can be effective because everything is connected.   Doesn’t it make sense to convert yard trimmings and organic food scraps – yes, even conventionally-grown vegetables – into next growing season’s soil instead of paying to have them removed?  Not that I’m advocating any more lawns for South Florida however much carbon they might sequester, but this is Green Gold just waiting to happen.  Take a look at Composting 101 from the US Composting Council, a national, non-profit and trade association, and see how this all works.

Composting is very much on my mind these days because, thanks to Margaret and Norm Robson, two revered elders and pillars of my UU faith community, we are going to soon have a place where we can put these ideas about composting into practice – a mini-revolution in the making.   We do a fair amount of food service already, some of it prepared in our commercial-sized kitchen, and every Sunday there is an ample deposit of coffee grounds.   Habits are sticky, so I don’t have any illusions that it will be easy to get everyone on the composting bandwagon right away.  Even if we convince half of our congregation to participate, this will be – like our vegetable patch and butterfly garden – another small model to practice and experiment with.  Nonetheless, I am optimistic because activism is a core principle; we already support Fair Trade coffee and chocolate with our purchases; we recycle clothing and household items through our thrift shop.   Small, committed effort works; it is “the only thing that ever has.”

If you are among the shrinking number of people who grew up on a small family farm, the value of composting will not be news to you.  I didn’t, yet managed to glean a little bit of knowledge from my generous next-door neighbor who grew the most flavorful, succulent New Jersey tomatoes in a small bed in the middle of his back lawn, using coffee grounds and egg shells as fertilizer, and picking off the bugs by hand.  Another source was a family elder who would enrich the soil around his citrus trees with ground up fish bones.  I experienced my first Victory Garden in the UK, carefully tended  by my aunt and uncle, who would bring what they couldn’t consume to the weekly farmers market in the main square.   It was a small supplement to their modest income, and a social time for them.  It’s no surprise that the Transition Movement is flourishing in the centuries-old small town cultures of Europe.

Most of us of a certain age have memories of food coming directly from local producers, unmediated by supermarkets, which is one reason I believe our compost benefactors are so enthusiastic about this project.  Possibly they share many of my environmental passions although it’s hard to imagine them hugging a tree or chaining themselves to a fence.

It will become increasingly important that we share our memories of where food comes from with our grandchildren, especially if they are urban- or suburban-raised and can’t tell a carrot from a cabbage when it’s in the ground.  Accompany them to the farmers market – better yet a real farm! — and let them see, smell and taste for themselves.

Let’s all remind ourselves that, as Wendell Berry wrote: “Eating is an agricultural act.”  It is also an act of social activism.  Composting completes the cycle, transforming our so-called waste into next year’s crop.  So it has been, and could be again, but only if we understand and act accordingly.

Raising Kale in a Raised Bed

laying out the garden
When I was a kid in England, I was well fed from vegetable garden my aunt and uncle planted each year on their ‘allotment.’ They had married at the end of World War II and just about everyone grew vegetables either on their own property or in a shared community space. It was one of those acts of keep-calm-and-carry-on patriotism that most certainly contributed to the Allied victory.

As we discover that small (and local) is indeed beautiful, the time for such kinds of community enterprise is most certainly here…again.

The photo shows our church community garden getting started. While it is small as veggie patches go, just 10 cinderblocks arranged in a rectangle 2.7′ x 5.2′ on a bed of ground cloth and cardboard, filled with bagged cow manure or compost, it has been planted intensively with kale, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, peppers, squash and marigolds around the rim (to keep the bugs at bay). The directions for the raised bed garden are from The University of Florida IFAS Extension and it came together quickly with four pairs of hands and a lot of enthusiasm.

As an experiment in community gardening, it has attracted more curiosity than volunteers willing to get their hands dirty (though I’m hopeful that may change). And even though the squash sort of ran away from home and the peppers got all leggy, I’m calling it a success nonetheless. Every few days for the past couple of months, we have harvested some kale and broccoli and occasionally a tomato or onion. Obviously, one cannot rely on a patch this size to supply one’s vegetables needs — our CSA does a great job of that. But it does demonstrate what is possible with very little effort and a small plot of soil. May you be so inspired.