Monday, June 29, 2009

Starting Some Seeds

This afternoon, my son, Noah, and I rounded up a bunch of old plastic yogurt containers that we've been saving for seed starting, filled them with soil, and planted 40 cucumber seeds. And tonight, Tracy planted 50 bean seeds. It's warm enough now that we can just leave them out on our back porch and try to be patient. If they all come up, we'll be in pretty good shape to get stuff actually in the ground and growing in time.

I also shipped off a bag of dirt to UMass for soil testing. I just hope it gets there in one piece.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What It Looks Like Now

I took a couple photos today to show what the site looks like now. It doesn't look like much, just a weedy stretch of chain link fence. But if this really happens, it could look very different by August and September. (Plus a new fence will make it look a lot better, too. But we can't take any credit for that.)

We got a Yes, now what?

The good news is that we got permission, but that just means that daydreams need to turn into reality. There are quite a few steps that need to happen next.

Yesterday, I gathered soil samples, so we can send it off to UMass-Amherst to get it tested. We need to make sure there aren't high levels of any dangerous metals (lead, arsenic, etc.) that might make our produce unsafe. I gathered 12 soil samples of about 1 cup each, mixed them together, dried them out overnight, and then mixed them all together again, and bagged up 1 cup to send to UMass, along with a check for $13. This is a critical point in the project, though we'll probably have to start planting before we get results, just because time is short. I've got my fingers crossed. If it turns out badly, we'll pull everything up, and help plant flowers.

We need to start some seeds right away! Ideally, as soon as the fence has been replaced, we'll have seedlings available to put into the ground. My son, Noah (age 9) and I counted our our Blue Lake pole bean seeds (100) and cucumber seeds (40) this afternoon. We probably need about 200 plants total, of all varieties. Looks like we already have enough bean and cucumber seeds. There's a chance, we might get some seedlings donated from a local nursery. But tomorrow, I figure we'll start as many seeds as we can in our various containers.

I also ordered seeds tonight--some vining summer squash, Tatume, from Victory Seeds. And since, I was there, I also ordered some Scarlet Runner pole beans (because they'll look nice), some Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans (for variety), and some lemon apple cucumbers (because they'll give some yellow to the wall of green and they're kinda funky looking).

I've started talking to neighbors, looking for volunteers, though I have a lot more work to do on this. I'm hoping to be able to borrow a garden cart from our backyard neighbor, because we no longer have a car (see our Choosing No Car blog).

Tomorrow night, we'll plant seeds using our leftover potting soil, seed starter mix, and worm castings from our worm bins.

Step 1: Permission

So, I had this cool idea for a 200 Foot Garden. I talked to a few people about it, and they all thought it sounded great. My wife, Tracy, was on board to help, and a couple neighbors are interested, too. We had to decide--do we go guerrilla, and just plant our beans, squash, peas, and cucumbers and see what happens, or do we ask permission?

As fun as it would be to make all this happen in secret, the fact is that we needed to ask permission. Otherwise, the landscape crews that sometimes trim the weeds would just cut down our veggies.

First we had to figure out who owns the land--the apartment complex or the city. Answer: the apartment complex, which is a mixed-income, somewhat subsidized development, with a large population of senior citizens.

I figured I wanted to make it as easy to say yes as possible, so I wanted our needs to be extremely simple. Could we make this happen if all they could give us was a Yes? I was pretty sure we could, though water would be a handy thing, too.

I put together this one-page proposal:

The 200 Foot Garden Project

What’s the idea? To create a vegetable garden to benefit the Brookline community that will enhance visual beauty, bring together neighbors, and supply healthy vegetables.

Where? A small strip of ground approximately 2 feet wide by 200 feet long, by 99 Kent Street, bounded on one side by a retaining wall and on the other by the sidewalk. A three-foot high chain-link fence runs along the sidewalk.
When? As soon as possible. This is a good time to plant beans, squash, and cucumbers. By mid-July, it’ll be getting too late. This project would run through October.

What do we need? Permission to plant climbing vegetable plants along the length of the retaining wall. The plants will be a mix of pole beans, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers. These plants will be threaded through the fence and grow such that apartment complex residents and passersby walking to and from Brookline Village can easily pick ripe vegetables and fruit from the sidewalk. The plants will be trimmed and maintained so as not to impinge upon the sidewalk access and will be trimmed at the top, to remain no taller than the fence. Depending on space available, we might also plant a row of lower plants along the retaining wall, inside the fence, and harvest them with volunteers—the vegetables would be left in a basket in the apartment complex for residents and management, and in another basket hung on the fence, at the end of the installation.

In addition, it would be helpful to have access to water from the spigots on the apartment building. If this is not possible, we will bring in water by hand. We’d like to be able to place litter picked from the ground in your trash can/dumpster, and if possible, set up a compost bin at the end of the parking lot (but neither of these are requirements—we can haul it out, if necessary).

Benefits to the apartment complex and management: We will maintain this small strip of land, reducing landscaping costs and efforts by management. This project will promote goodwill between the complex, management, and the neighborhood and town. The garden will provide free vegetables to the residents and management of the complex, as well as neighbors. The project will enhance the visual aspects of this stretch of land. We will keep the piece of ground free of trash and litter, and we will remove all weeds during the summer, and remove all vines and old plants in the fall.

Costs to the complex? None. We’re not asking for any funds, just permission to plant. Though if you provide us with water, that is some cost to you (if possible, we’d plan to mulch in order to keep down water needs). If liability is a concern, we’re willing to sign waivers and ensure that all volunteers also sign liability waivers.

Who are we? We’re Patrick and Tracy Gabridge, neighbors from around the corner (MM Netherlands Road) with an interest in gardening, as well as MMMMM, a resident at 55 Village Way. Patrick has managed two different community gardens in Roxbury and is a graduate of the Master Urban Gardener Program offered by the Boston Natural Areas Network. He’s also an officer of the Riverway Island Neighborhood Association. Tracy is a librarian at MIT and writes a blog, Beyond Dinner, about sustainable agriculture and food. If we get permission to plant, there are a number of other neighbors who are likely to join us in this project, plus we’d put out flyers encouraging residents of the complex to take part. We can be reached at ###### (home) or ####### (cell), or by e-mail at
Thanks for taking the time to consider our proposal. Please contact us with any questions and let us know how we can make this happen.

I dropped it off at the management office in April, but also got some bad news. The property manager had just resigned, and they had an interim manager until they could hire someone permanent. I knew that was likely to be a problem, but I left the proposal anyway, and I got a phone number.

No response. I left about 4 or 5 phone messages over the next two months, but had no luck. Life got busy, so I started to write it off. Maybe next year.

Then I talked to a friend who lives in the complex. She said that a new manager was just hired--I asked her to get person's name, and went by the next day, with a copy of the proposal.

This time, I got to talk directly to the new manger, who was extremely receptive to the idea. She said she'd bring it to her supervisors, but that there was one problem. They just contracted with a company to replace the fence. So we couldn't plant right away. The good news, however, is that the fence needs to be done by July 15th. If everything else fell into place, we could plant on or around the 16th. Pretty late, but if we had seedlings, we could still get plants in place and producing veggies by September.

Last week, I got the call--permission has been granted. We're good to go.

What is the 200 Foot Garden Project?

(by Patrick)

In Brookline, between our house and the T stop in Brookline Village, a 3.5 foot high chain-link fence runs along a narrow strip of land between the sidewalk and a parking lot for a neighboring apartment complex. The fence has seen better days, and the the 2 foot-wide strip of ground is often full of various weeds and litter. I have a strong interest in gardening, especially in community gardens (I used to manage two different community gardens in Roxbury, before we moved to Brookline 3 years ago). Lately, I've been reading a lot about vertical gardening, especially in urban settings.

Wouldn't it be interesting to have this 200 foot stretch of fence be more visually interesting, for all the commuters that walk by? And what if, on people's commute, they could help themselves to a vegetable or two?

Last year, when we redid the tiny strip of ground in front of our condo building with our neighbors, a volunteer tomato plant sprouted, probably from a castaway seed from some passerby's sandwich. This tomato grew in a small crack between the sidewalk and our cobblestones. Over the summer, neighbors cared for it, and it grew to produce tomatoes for anyone to take (and they did).

So I came up with an idea, that started to turn into a plan--let's plant vegetables along this entire 200 foot length of fence. It'll be a commuter garden. It can provide a bit of delight to people walking by, and it can remind people that vegetable gardening is something that can be done anywhere, not just in a big yard or community garden plot. The project can also help bring together neighbors, and for the true city folks, it can show them what vegetable plants look like (yes, kids, beans don't just come from the supermarket).

So that's the plan. I came up with the idea back in April, and started trying to get it to happen. Now it looks like it might.