Submitted by Tommy Tepper
As a part-time community gardener at the Joyner Community Garden in Asheville, North Carolina, I am writing this piece to add to A Growing Culture’s scope of global food production. Food is the essence of every culture and it is the commonality of us all, no matter who you are. This is not just in terms of large farms, but also backyard gardens and community gardens. These types of garden systems should be held in the same regard as all other food production systems. All of us are trying to simply reinforce the vital importance of knowing what’s in your soil, knowing what, in fact, is on your plate or in your hands when you are eating. The fact that many people don’t seem to know how their food got to them or all that went into making the product just makes no sense to me.
I am very blessed to live in an American town like Asheville where there are many community gardens and so many backyard gardens. Some even have fishponds, ducks, goats, and chickens, but what really is important and good to know is that the word and the message keep on spreading from one person to the next. People walk by the Joyner Community Garden all the time, asking, “how did you grow that?” or, “what kind of vegetable is that?” Or, even, “why are you guys and girls here all the time?” The point is that people can‘t help but notice the flowers, the bees and butterflies; that for some reason on this city street filled with houses upon houses, there is this rather small parcel of land with a garden with lots of things growing. Even if it is just the neighborhood mail carrier deciding to plant 4 tomato plants at his house or a new neighbor getting her hands dirty at the community garden, all these things spread wings and that, to me, is the whole point.
The parcel of land that Joyner sits on was donated to a local non-profit organization focused on urban gardening called the Bountiful Cities Project (www.bountifulcitiesproject.org). They own and operate 8-9 different parcels of land throughout the city of Asheville, including an edible park downtown that grows over 30 different varieties of fruit trees. The Joyner Community Garden is managed by three individuals, Eric, Laura, and myself, Tommy Tepper. Each year, we have a small core of helpers, some who put in a lot of time, like us, and some that just come every now and again. Although the area of Joyner Community Garden is rather small, totaling less than one third of an acre, we grow very intensively and almost year round. The Project has been actively farming the land for a little over four years. We grow organically and specialize in the production of tomatoes, poblano peppers, potatoes, Swiss chard, asparagus, garlic, herbs, perennial flowers, as well as red and green Asian long beans.
The whole garden is run very informally, as community members come together to cooperatively produce food to aid local demand. Together we strive to grow all the food, flowers, herbs, and fruit for the community who live directly on and around Joyner Avenue. We strive to help the immediate community save money, have access to high quality food, and to educate each other about the whole realm of what growing food means and looks like. We produce food consistently for three seasons out of the four, In winter, we extend the season by storing food and herbs. We will occasionally ,dry herbs, and save seed, but mostly we pickle or ferment what we grow. For example, set aside for the winter this year, I have fermenting hot peppers, carrots, and beets. In my freezer, I have frozen corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, and pumpkin puree.
We also all have stores of garlic, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. However, despite nearly the entire garden being cover-cropped all winter (usually in winter rye), there are two rows still in production. One row is for the garlic planted in October; the other is the winter production row. This row consists of one long hoop house bed with a large sheet of found plastic tarp (and whatever else we have lying around, come winter time) to mimic a greenhouse. We usually grow greens, small root veggies, and onions under the hoop house. In fact, last year, we got used nylon bags from the brewery down the street (they once held barley in them) and created a cold frame to produce kale, beets, carrots, and turnips during the cold winter.
Another aspect of the Joyner community garden educating our neighbors and volunteers to grow food on their own. Although, at first, this was possibly an indirect aim, now it seems to be at the forefront of why we choose to spend our time at Joyner. We educate just by being a neighbor: we talk to people and share stories about growing food. We don‘t educate in a formal way. For example, we have never held a workshop, but instead educate through more one-on-one conversations or walking tours of the garden.
Usually the education involves one specific topic at a time. For instance, one neighbor down the street from Joyner wanted to know how he should dig up his grass so that he could have a garden at his house. We told him about resources we use for materials, such as free cow manure and reasonably priced quality topsoil, and we offered our assistance and any tools he needed to get the job done. Another time, a neighbor wanted to add some type of greens to her morning Vitamix breakfast drink and we had an abundance of sorrel. She just harvests some whenever she wants.
The community garden sells directly to a local independent grocery store and, occasionally, to local restaurants. Primarily, we produce food not for a particular market, but instead to give to those who volunteer and to feed the community members who are in need. I love regional and small-scale systems, so we try to have a direct impact on the community that surrounds the garden itself. Of course, we would not turn our heads to someone who lived across town, but I believe our thinking is that the word “community” in our name should focus on our direct community. I believe that in the future, once our soil is really built up and once our young fruit trees really produce, we can have even more impact , but for now, this small space helps feed about six people every week, sometimes 6-12 people, depending on volunteers and requests from our direct community.
Due to the local impact of Joyner Community Garden, my fellow managers and I feel very lucky to be a part of its development. Since the garden has only been in use for four years, we have spent most of that time building up the soil. When we arrived, the soil was mainly made up of mountain clay, which is very restrictive for the roots of things to grow. The land was prepared for a developed house to go there; there is even a waterspout. We have had the soil tested and it appears there are no pollutants or, at least, no more than in your average urban land in the area where we live. The land is located on a large hill, so we have no runoff problem. However, there is a nearby driveway that connects to one side of the garden.
The soil here in the mountains of North Carolina is clay; therefore, it does not easily drain. From this clay, we have over 3-4 years of added leaves (from when the city delivers these to us once a year and from bags of leaves we collect from people’s yards), aged cow manure (a free source from local livestock), and cover cropping every winter. We have been focusing on building organic matter through mixing the soil with these amendments. I feel that all three have really helped, and we seem to add one to three inches of quality topsoil from this three-step process.
One of our other approaches to building a successful garden involves thinking as a group. We try to balance the short-term goals and long-term goals of the community garden, meaning that we focus on growing food each year for that year, but, at the same time, we constantly try to foresee where we could be 3-5 years from now. For instance, if we want to grow potatoes, onions, and sweet potatoes this growing season, we will also be thinking about and looking at space to try to figure out where we could possibly put more Asian pear trees or a low-lying, fruit-bearing bush.
Our approach helps minimize tillage and labor by putting in more perennials and more fruit-bearing plants. For example, this year, we created new garden space in a little corner that was unused prior. We also planted 60 strawberry plants and, this fall, we will be planting additional blueberry plants and planting into other spaces we cleared out. Also, we have been getting into more specialty crops, like perennial garlic chives, which gives us an onion flavor nearly all year long. Beneficial insects love them as well.
As we maintain strict organic practices, our main struggles are dealing with harlequin bugs, Bermuda grass, and excessive heat during certain days of the summer. We have taken some drastic measures to control some of these, including plugging in a vacuum and just going to town on the nasty harlequins! We try to create low-cost practices, since none of us have tons of leftover income to spend on the garden. One of the most successful low-cost techniques seems to be boiling down a bunch of hot peppers in one of our kitchens, mixing it with ivory soap, and using it as a spray to keep the majority of pests away. It seems to work especially well on things like kale and collards. Some things we have just decided not to grow because they attract so many pests. We decided last year not to grow kale or collard greens and instead just focus on other greens like Swiss chard and sorrel because nothing seems to eat them.
An important thing to take away from community gardening (and farming) is that it is just like one’s life⎯you make mistakes and you learn from them along the way. As long as you keep trying, success in the garden can be found. Plus, you get to meet tons of cool folks and share meals with each other. Lastly, thank you AGC for helping us all share our stories and out our “secrets” so that we may all have a better handle on growing our own food!