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Karen Washington tells local urban gardeners: to go permanent, get political

With community garden plots in short supply, enthusiastic gardeners are happy to find a place to plant, but what happens when their garden’s lease isn’t renewed or the land is sold?

To continue growing the community garden movement, gardeners and organizers need to intentionally establish sustainable new gardens and advocate for continued access to existing gardens, said Karen Washington, president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and founding member of the
Black Urban Growers who gave the keynote address at the eighth annual Community Garden Spring Resource Fair held March 31.

 “We are now seeing more and more people who are growing food in cities and seeking land to do so,” she said. “If cities are serious about urban agriculture then we must demand land to designate for growing food. And who will benefit? The people.”

Getting Elected Officials Involved

The fair, organized by the non-profit community gardening resource organization Gardening Matters, drew more than 300 community garden organizers and gardeners, backyard gardeners, urban farmers and local food entrepreneurs to St. Paul’s Neighborhood House. Some 30 garden-related and other local organizations exhibited at the fair.

Washington talked about her 20 years’ experience in growing and advocating for community gardens in New York City, which has involved clean-up and planting of vacant lots, community organizing, and political involvement to expand and protect some of the city’s 700 community gardens. (And protection is a real issue here as well; according to Gardening Matters, more than half of the roughly 300 community gardens in the Twin Cities metro area have only short-term leases.)

In advocating for community gardens, Washington emphasized the need to understand the political system and how it affects land, to hold elected officials accountable through voting and to speak with a united voice.

Renewed interest in community gardens has taken a different turn, Washington said. “There were people growing food in their front yard, their backyard, their terraces, their windowsills, their fire escape,” she said. “What is new, however, is the profound interest in the economic and enterprising aspect of growing food in the city. For others it is the continual need for social and food justice.”

The Key Is Collaboration

Besides Washington’s talk, the fair workshops ranged from engaging youth in gardening, food swaps and coop, soil testing resources, growing in small spaces and justice in the food system.

Fair attendee Anna Bierbrauer, who with her family has worked the same Northeast Minneapolis community garden plot for four years, sees the importance of collaboration and good urban agriculture policy. “We need to come together, not work independently,” she said.

Although she’s planted perennials, Bierbrauer said she can only plan from season to season because the garden land is for sale.

Giving the community garden movement longevity depends on making land access more permanent, said Margaret Shields, Gardening Matters outreach coordinator.

“With all the interest in local foods and growing your own food we really want to harness that energy and direct it in a way that’s creating a sustainable movement, sustainable in terms of longevity,” she said. “We’re really creating gardens that are pillars of their communities and that are truly benefiting the communities where they’re located.”

Susan Klemond's last article for The Line was a portrait of the Twin Cities' high-end chocolatiers, in our November 30, 2011 issue.

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