How can we create a sustainable world? Are we doomed to extinction, or is there hope? I believe we can craft a new world, one garden at a time….
Into my sturdy canvas bag I put heirloom tomatoes, giant zucchinis, and shiny green peppers, picked fresh that morning. The farm pickup volunteer sits in his wheelchair, calmly surveying the hubbub of shareholders as they weigh out cherry tomatoes and choose the right chilies. My daughter, wrapped around my leg, watches the bustle with interest.
Hey, Baby, want to go pick some flowers?" I ask as I choose a bunch of chard and nestle it atop the carrots. We head out into the hot afternoon.
As we tromp the dozen yards out to the flower bed and past great piles of compost, I wave at a Somali Bantu elder harvesting cucumbers. My toddler picks marigolds by the fistful while I pluck a few more peppers in a nearby bed. Though the farm's fields are large, I know she is safe. The other shareholders know she is my child, and I can see her bright pink sunhat from wherever I go.
The summer before her second birthday we visit DeLaney Farm weekly to collect our share, pick flowers, and run over the rock pile. "Farm!" she shouts joyfully as the white buildings and prairie-like fields come into sight. Half an hour from downtown Denver, DeLaney is an urban farm, surrounded by city, housing parks, and greenway trails. It is one of many urban gardening projects managed by Denver Urban Gardens (DUG). To my daughter our visit is another summer diversion in the endless days of toddlerhood, but to me it is hope. It is a promise to my daughter that I will do all I can to preserve this teetering earth so that she may have a future. This is where I work my magic, crafting a paradigm shift through local, organic gardening.
It becomes clearer each day that a lot must be done right now to save our species (and millions others) from extinction. One place to do so is in a community garden. People come together to share skills and knowledge, grow their own food, and cultivate the very paradigm we will need to survive global climate change.
Urban community gardens like DeLaney Farm bring together diverse people growing their own food or supporting local farmers while cultivating better lives and stronger communities. In a community garden, language is not important. One’s agricultural or educational background is not important. Religious and political conflicts give way to an ethic of the land.
Community gardens are especially beneficial to people who have faced adversity in their lives. In one Denver garden, special education students gain a sense of pride and self-efficacy. They take on leadership roles and learn to work with others1. Another DUG-sponsored garden memorializing nearly 100 murdered youth offers families solace and hope. This garden has become a safe community gathering place and a symbol of what connection through the land can reap2. At DeLaney Farm, Somali Bantu refugees who fled persecution and slavery in Africa grow food for their community while learning marketable skills and the English language. Through their work at the farm they will one day be able to purchase their own land. These are all examples of the power of the garden to transmute adversity and craft a better society.
In another local garden, Jeff Tejral of Aurora Water illustrates how gardening can be integral to city life, a crucial piece of what I call the gardening revolution. With the Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Gardens and experimental gardens at local water treatment plants, Jeff hopes to show individuals and businesses more sustainable ways to use water than traditional lawn. The Xeriscape Demonstration Garden boasts nine varieties of low-water turf and over 350 varieties of perennials, trees, and shrubs. These include a few edibles, like the alpine strawberries my daughter loves to poke through, and herbs. The garden is just down the road from DeLaney Farm and across the parking lot from the city's municipal building. They are another example of the new urban land ethic.
Tejral feels strongly that the next revolution will be about food. The water and energy crises we now face already affect our food economy. When imported bread and soda and milk all become unaffordable for the average family, we will learn we need to focus our resources at home. Instead of paying the government taxes to subsidize corn and petroleum companies to transport that corn, instead of dumping gallons of water and chemicals onto lawns, we will invest our money, energy, and water into our own gardens and community farms. Jeff's gardens and the urban community gardens around the city show us that such a life is possible right now. We can grow our own food. We can create the kind of world we want to live in, one that is healthy, affordable, and beautiful. We can live in harmony with the planet.
What would it take to make organic farms and gardens as ubiquitous as Starbucks coffee shops? The change must come from within, beginning with local farms, back yards, and parks. We need to completely rethink our parks and green spaces; as Jeff Tejral says, "Getting back to parks before the time of the lawnmower3." We will need to make room for outdoor community spaces that offer multiple uses. Not just walking the dog and playing Frisbee, but growing mint and eggplant and quinoa. Raising chickens and goats and bees. Holding community rituals that unite diverse peoples and foster hope.
I envision a world where the "empty" lots are transformed by neighborhood residents into gardens and gathering places. Where every child knows where her food comes from and how to grow it. Where water and energy are used with the whole in mind. I know this world is possible because I have seen it in action at DeLaney Farm, the Xeriscape Gardens, the urban gardens across the city, and programs like these around the world. I also believe people want this world. Friends of mine who don't utilize the city's recycling program and don't care about how their meat is raised ask me for help growing tomatoes and herbs in pots, and they shop at the Farmer's Market. Our bodies and spirits feel drawn to the land. We need that relationship. We just need a little help getting there via new infrastructure and education. With a paradigm of interconnection, personal responsibility and empowerment, buying local, growing our own food, and living a truly green lifestyle will become a way of life for all people.
At the end-of-season potluck at DeLaney Farm, one of the young translators for the Somali Bantu urges me to try one of their traditional dishes, amboga. Made from wild pigweed, or machichi in MaayMaay, it is a traditional African recipe using greens, onion, curry powder and peppers. The spicy, tangy dish melts on my tongue. I smile at the young man, so different from me in many ways, yet here, transforming the earth by my side. This is deep activism and powerful magic: putting down roots, growing interconnections, and creating lives based fundamentally on an ethic of the land.
1"Meaningful Harvest: Discovering a landscape of wonder, youth flourish in community gardens." The Underground News. Denver Urban Gardens. Autumn 2004 (Vol 10 No 1).
2Denver Urban Gardens brochure.