The many virtues of community-based gardening

Ever taken in a full tomato harvest? It’s best enjoyed with a whole crowd of friends all cooking sauce, then eating it, as a virtuous celebration. (photo by Portia Munson)

Ever taken in a full tomato harvest? It’s best enjoyed with a whole crowd of friends all cooking sauce, then eating it, as a virtuous celebration. (photo by Portia Munson)

I recently heard of a village in north England named Todmorden, in West Yorkshire, that has begun a massive garden project. They’re filling many of their public spaces with vegetables, fruit trees, and herb plantings available to all who want them. As one of the organizers of these open and free gardens stated, “It is an act of investing in kindness, in ourselves and our community’s health that has driven us.”

Living where we do, some of us are singularly favored with some absolutely amazing frigging soil. Often it seems that all one need do here is drop a seed or a plant in our abundantly fertile ground, give it some love, and it will grow. Welcome to the edible landscape.


And welcome to a new age of back-to-the-garden farming, including some of it “underground,” operating on borrowed or lent lands. Or through family resuscitations of old farmsteads that had gone fallow between the latter half of the 1970s and recent years. And other means of building community by sharing the bounty of our fruit trees, the abundance of tomatoes ripening on the vine, and flowers blooming in their delirium-scented headiness.

The recently deceased “Guerrilla Gardener” Adam Purple, who spent many of his later years in the Ellenville area, was a great exponent of this type of activism, constructing a huge community garden in an abandoned lot on the Lower East Side. By hauling horse manure on the back of his bike from Central Park, he turned a blighted mid-Seventies forgotten urban landscape into a fertile and dynamically prolific food production center that was shared throughout the neighborhood. In his inimitable and beautifully eccentric way, he created what was at once a grand work of art as well as a zone of spirituality that acted as a green sanctuary from the surrounding hard city. His work was the inspiration for other urban gardens in New York and other cities around the globe.

That element of gardening as art is more ubiquitous than one thinks. Another Lower East Side legend, blacksmith Tovey Halleck, has transformed fallow farms throughout the Catskills as part of a busy and successful farm-to-table business in recent years. Starting this time of year, many of the region’s top artists focus as much on flowers and vegetables as on their painting or sculpture.

One good friend who lives just up the road has spent the last 20-plus years with his wife and two children turning their old family farm into a garden of delights. What they grow often becomes the material that make up some of their art works. I asked him about his underlying philosophy, his ethos, regarding the property they’ve created and how their art continues to evolve. The ensuing conversation seemed to flow out, wandering through many topics from the philosophical gardening bible “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka, to the seasonal changes brought on by a mild winter.

As birds sang at the feeders beyond the window and aromas of the fall harvest’s bounty wafted the house, he related his own natural dogma. “We watch and listen to the surrounding nature to understand how it works in and of itself and try to replicate that here,” my neighbor said. “Learning from the woods, the fields and the stream, what feeds them, what makes them stronger, helps us to better understand our perennial fruits and flowers, as well as ourselves. Each year we try to figure out ways that we can do less and get more, through natural composting, fertilizing and mulching. Here we are an equal part of this landscape with all that grows and thrives under our care.”

The man’s son, newly graduated from college, added his generation’s take on the same back-to-the-land sentiments. “Not only are we lessening our carbon footprint but we’re trying to create a positive footprint in its place,” he told us. “From wild foraging to re-activating long-unused fruit trees, we’re also recycling thrown away food and materials from local businesses that can be utilized to not only feed people but also feed the earth.”

In their aesthetically-motivated endeavors, they (and many other friends I know) have teamed up with members of a local collective, a loose-knit group of enthusiastic grower-farmers, builders, artisans, and alternative lifestyle experimenters who have gone further underground after an initial burst of publicity several years ago. From building and living in tiny houses, planting community gardens and having garden-share days, to trying to live with minimal use of both money and fossil fuels, the collective act as an educational and inspirational springboard for many wanting to lessen our footprint on this land we love. By trying to eliminate money from the equation, age-old customs of barter, trade and share are brought back to the table, practices that had been mostly forgotten in the glaring haze of rampant over-consumerism.

Having participated in a number of their garden-share days myself (“Anyone need 30 pounds of zucchini?”), I can attest to the absolutely liberating feeling of a cashless transaction. We’ve all come to look forward to our “underground” friends’ regular cookouts, which usually follow big harvests, all handled collectively.

People come, like me, to find out what others have been growing and making, to learn techniques to better actualize the bounty we bring to our tables, and to come away with some amazing fruit, veggies, herbs, nuts and tinctures to boot. The information, about subjects from Hugelkultur (raised beds made from old branches, grass clippings and other compostables) to rain-water catchment systems, vertical hanging gardens and simple vegetable dehydrators, flows freely, and offers of help to learn and do any of it are plentiful.

Witnessing all of this, even in its infant stage, is a wonder of far-sighted optimistic creativity mixed with an altruistic idealism at once purposefully non-commercial but more importantly simply humanistic. Are we not at our best when we share with others, give freely of ourselves, our time, our sweat and our humanity?

It often seems that our modern technology-heavy society has pushed us indoors and away from each other and away from nature, locking our faces onto little glowing screens that seem to do little but suck our souls dry. When we do go out, it’s in a car, more often than not to a big-box store to spend money we don’t have on cheap crap we don’t really need.

Gardening is the antithesis to all that hiding away looking at Facebook. At once you are in the glory of the outside, sticking your hands into the rich earth. Secondly the thrill of pulling a fresh carrot from the ground, a ripe red tomato from a vine, or an apple from a branch and then sharing it with friends and neighbors not only feeds bellies but also more importantly feeds souls.

In this oft-beleaguered world that seems to breed so much hate and degradation, there are waves of hope inherent in growing beautiful and tasty things. We still have a chance to be more human, more community-minded, more connected, and more committed to our Earth.

That, in the end, isn’t underground at all, but of the ground. So put down your phones, dust off your trowel or shovel, and get out there and plant some seeds. Happy harvest!