When I teamed up with fellow activists, Mary Jo Aagerstoun of EcoArt South Florida and Brian Kirsch of Gray Mockingbird Community Garden, to bring Symphony of the Soil, Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary, to a packed Muvico cinema in West Palm Beach last year, I had no idea that 14 months later, I would be up to my own elbows in dark, rich-with-compost soil and a new community garden.
This project, a first-of-its-kind partnership between CROS Ministries, the gleaning organization that supplies thousands of pounds of food to local food pantries, and my home congregation, 1st UU of the Palm Beaches, is itself symphonic in that it is composed of many different elements blending harmoniously. As our minister, Rev. CJ McGregor, realized that 1st UU has plenty of well-drained open land on the congregation’s property, most of it bathed by 6-8 hours of sunlight, year round, he didn’t need much persuading to take the next logical step. CROS Ministries brings dedication to feeding people in need, experienced volunteers, and growing knowhow. Gleaning director, Keith Cutshall, has the patience and kindness of someone with deep practice in soil management, growing vegetables, and working with volunteers of all ages. CROS Ministries also supplied its own truck for transport of soil, mulch and other necessaries.
We received a gift of dark, compost-rich soil from Green Cay Farm, the life and work of Ted Winsberg, farmer, soil scientist, and local philanthropist. Ted and his wife, Trudy, are well-known in their community of Boynton Beach as instrumental in the creation of Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center on 170 acres they sold to Palm Beach County for one-third of its appraised value in 1997, specifically for that purpose. Ted also provided our project five sturdy wood frames for the raised beds, all built of recycled lumber on his farm.
This enabled us to follow the no-till method of raised bed growing, developed by the University of Florida Extension, originally introduced to us by the garden founder, the late Wayne Reynolds, after whom the garden is named. In addition to saving enormous amount of labor, albeit supplied by an enthusiastic team of volunteers within the congregation, a not unimportant side benefit of the no-till method is that no heavy earth-moving equipment is needed so the surrounding area is left unscarred. When you’re planting among established trees and shrubbery, the value of this is obvious. First, we had to determine an overall layout for the garden. For aesthetic reasons, we decided to organize the boxes in a semi-circle around existing vegetation, mulching around them so the whole becomes a no-mow area. Mulching on the planted areas after seeds sprout, will also help conserve water. Thanks to another generous gift, we will be investigating drip and soaker hose type irrigation. Ground cloth goes down first, right on the grass, followed by the wooden frame which helps anchor it. Keith Cutshall had picked up the wood boxes from Green Cay Farm earlier in the week and delivered them to our site.
Recycled cardboard — the kind of sturdy box-stock movers, supermarkets and liquor stores have in abundance for the asking, get split and laid over the cloth next. This also helps keep the soil moist and the grass out of the growing area. Soil was hand shoveled from the truck and hauled over by wheelbarrow and bucket.
You can see a little bit of our earlier experiment with cinderblock for a raised bed in the above photo. Wood looks more attractive, but cinder block can be painted and the open areas can also be used for planting complementary herbs or marigolds to control pests without artificial additives. Here is the sugar snap pea bed, ready for the time when they need a place to climb. Just look at the color of the soil! Seeds — pole beans, peppers, tomatoes and sugar snap peas — were also donated by Eden Organic Nursery Service, and El Sol‘s Sunshine Community Garden, already a partner of the congregation, supplied us with hardy tomato seedlings. El Sol’s weekday hot lunch program will be the beneficiary of our harvest of fresh, locally-grown vegetables. CROS Ministries will remain on the project, Keith assured us, their volunteers helping ours to tend the growing beds from now through harvest time, and beyond. When the work was done for this sunny, cool Saturday, we celebrated with an ample lunch supplied by another 1st UU volunteer. It’s a win-win situation for everyone — just another day in the life of a constantly surprised convert to the power of growing food and community.