The Accidental Garden Club

 9th District Intern John Hausmann is interviewing community residents involved in sustainability.  This is the second story in the series, focusing on community building through gardening.  If you know a 9th District resident involved in sustainability who would be a good candidate for an interview, please contact Katie Holmes 

By John Hausmann

When I was a kid, I loved peering over our fence to see what our neighbors had planted. I remember standing on tiptoes, trying to catch the smell of overturned earth and sun-baked tomatoes from our next door neighbor Marian’s garden, or being fastidiously careful to avoid stepping on the encroaching squash and cucumber plants that would grow through the chain link from Joyce’s house behind us. I remember how, as I got older, my mother would send me from house to house with excess produce from our own garden, and how I would usually return laden with homemade breads (and cookies!) from our grateful neighbors. Most importantly, I remember the long conversations my parents had over the fence, discussions that usually began as idle late summer small talk about the success or failure of various crops, but which became an ongoing dialogues about family and work and everyday life.

As I grew up and moved out, I adjusted to the reality of rental properties and college towns, the logistics of which rarely afforded the time or space to foster the types of relationships between neighbors that can only result from a shared summer of sweat and toil. I began to assume that the memories from my childhood were merely impressions of a bygone era, when neighbors would stop and talk about the weather while tending their gardens. My faith was restored after I met with my neighbor, fellow gardener, and District 9 resident Dave Vislisel, who shared this story with me.

Dave’s neighborhood (on Warren Road, quietly offset from the traffic of Brownsboro Road) is full of people who garden. In addition to Dave and his wife Sue, there are folks like Bob McAlpine, who has grown peppers and tomatoes since he moved to the neighborhood, and the Parkers, who expanded their planting this year to include sweet potatoes and strawberries. While it seemed that most of those living in the area had gardens of some kind, talking with these folks gave me the impression that the efforts were fairly isolated: neighbors would live and grow next to each other, and exchange some kind words in passing, but everyone remained primarily in their own orbit.

Dave outlined how this began to evolve throughout the summer. At first, there were small changes. Bob recalls that Sue and Dave shared some of their homegrown okra, which led to further conversations and collaborations. As Bob told me, he was “always willing to helpgarden1 other neighbors whenever I become aware of a need,” an attitude I saw throughout the neighborhood, where people were more than willing to turn a spade, share their fertilizer, or just lend a sympathetic ear after some errant deer had eaten a crop of tomatoes. People also began cooperating in other ways, like sharing growing spaces. Dave told me about a pairing of two neighbors, one with excess garden space, and the other with excess time and energy (and compost!). The couple shared weeding and watering duties (resulting in stress-free vacations), but also got to reap the benefits, which you can see to the right: peppers, beans, tomatoes, okra, and zinnias.

Neighbors also began to communally care for local green spaces. I talked with Danny Bledsoe, who has been watering, weeding, fertilizing, mulching, and mowing one space, a large triangle patch at the entrance of the neighborhood, for over 14 years. Some of Danny’s work is very community-minded, like taking up a collection for a neighborhood sign or a creek rock bed to further beautify the area. Danny also portioned off an area to grow patches of okra as well as sunflowers in a public lot at entrance of neighborhood, which as you can see has been quite successful! Sue sent me another picture (below) of a similar plot that has flourished through the combined efforts of neighbors (and a donation of chrysanthemums from Brightside).

These types of interactions “grew” over the summer, involving more people and more plants each month, but one of the things that most struck me was the “organic” nature of the entire affair. No prior planning took place; rather, slowly and unintentionally, with little larger motivation, several neighbors began collaborating and working together. There were two results from this. The first was that several people began considering expanding their planting during this upcoming spring. As Kiley Parker put it, “I think gardening is the best way to be outside and would love for more people to join in the fun, we have a lot of yard space in our neighborhood and I think it could bring us more together.” Bob echoed those sentiments, replying that it “would be nice if we did share, especially if we planted different vegetables,” joining their efforts and produce into a larger communal garden. Someone who echoed this idea was Chris Brian. Chris’s plot only gets 4-5 hours of direct sunlight each day, and because of this, he is fairly limited in terms of what he can grow. Chris said he would love to trade spaces and coordinate with someone to add variety to his harvest. He also mentioned that he would support a larger collective organization, sharing ideas, space, and extra material since, as he pointed out, every time you go to the store, you end up coming home with far more than you need! You can see a shot of Chris and Cindi Brian’s lovely stone-lined raised bed (left), with its combination of flowers, vegetables and herbs.

The second change that happened as a result of this shared gardening was in the neighborhood itself. As the Parkers said, gardening “does draw you to talk to people as they walk by and invite them to look at what you’re doing.” These conversations, brief as they may be, are an important way of drawing people together, of giving them a shared sense of purpose, and of making the neighborhood more than simply a place to return to after a day’s work. Kiley looked even further beyond this, telling me she’s wanted a neighborhood pot-luck supper since she moved in, and would love to give away some of the extra food she and her husband grow, as well as draw even closer with her neighbors over a home-grown meal.

Dave was careful to insist that everything I just described happened slowly over the course of the summer, and was leery of being considered an “expert” gardener. And that’s fine, because at the end of the day, what’s important isn’t who was growing what or sharing which chores with whom. What’s important is the community. What I remember most about our garden growing up, and what I hold most dear now, was never the planting or digging or even eating. It was that I had a space where I could stand and have a conversation with my older neighbors as an equal, an almost sacred trust of responsibility in the promise to water and weed while they were on vacation, and the excitement of seeing someone come out their back door to have a conversation across the fence.

Gardening isn’t just a way to reduce the carbon footprints of our food consumption or work off some extra time and energy. It’s a way to learn more about our neighbors, to build a sense of community and grow closer together. Like a garden, growing a community does take time, effort, and some diligence, but (just like a garden), the rewards are longer lasting––and sweeter––than that first bite into your sun-ripened tomatoes!

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