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Reflections on the 2021 Community Garden Season

By Pat James, Community Garden Manager

Each spring, GFN Organic Community Garden gardeners agree to use organic methods, avoid non-GMO plants and seeds, keep our plots as weed-free as possible, remove invasive weeds, and generally maintain a supportive, friendly atmosphere for everyone in the garden. We do this because it supports healthy soils, heathy plants, healthy water and air, healthy people and healthy communities.

At New Gardener Orientation, we remind gardeners that the land was originally stewarded by the Nipmuc People before it was taken by the European colonists and pioneers who also tried to erase their communities, language and culture. Then we note the history of our land as a site where abolitionists demonstrated that sugar and textiles could be produced cooperatively, without the labor of enslaved people. Next, we talk about the family farms on this land during the last century who farmed using so-called “conventional” agricultural methods, meaning that they used synthetic chemicals to fertilize crops and manage pests. Farmers did this to remain competitive, but these so-called “conventional” practices wiped out the precious the microbiome that makes soil fertile, forcing them to apply even more chemicals to feed the plants, and more pesticides to kill the pests whose natural predators have been wiped out by these poisons.

Finally we remind each new gardener that, for thousands of years before the last century, conventional farming was organic farming. Nipmuc communities, like many indigenous people, had a deep understanding that caring for the land ensured the long-term health of the soil, air and water, as well as the people. They stewarded the land to support themselves and to nurture future generations.

Europeans generally scoffed at indigenous ways of food production and land care. My European ancestors valued individual ownership over shared land. Volume of food production trumped soil and crop health, and profit trumped sustainability. They privileged individual rights over community needs and responsibilities. They thought of nature as something to be conquered, dominated, and used. 

This kind of thinking and action has cost us dearly in terms of soil health, human health and community well-being. When GFN began to steward this land more than a decade ago, we re-mineralized the soil, followed up with generous applications of compost, and invited people to tend the land in community. The soil is now deliciously healthy, and so is our garden community. We welcome all people and all kinds of wildlife, big and small, onto our land. There have been recent sightings of bobcats, fisher cats, mink, a moose calf, bears, numerous raptors, rodent-eating great blue herons, and our growing families of killdeer. We have a healthy native bee population alongside the honey bees, and untold numbers of beneficial insects, fungi, mold and other microorganisms that sustain a dynamic and healthy ecosystem. Gardeners often tell me about their deep feeling for this land, a spiritual connection which our Nipmuc precedents would have recognized: they cherish it, and see themselves as part of it.

 So as the land that we steward goes into a period of rest for the next few months, we are working on new ways to reflect GFN’s commitment to racial equity, food justice and land care. For example, we’re rethinking the fee structure for community garden plots to acknowledge reparations for land theft and the exclusion of people of color from land ownership. We will continue to embrace the notion that organic is conventional, and has been for millennia. Let’s also promote the idea that all gardening is community gardening, knowing that how we garden anywhere impacts land and people everywhere. Finally let’s expand our notion of community to include all the living, sentient beings that grace the land that produces our food, and let’s commit each season to nurture healthy soil, plants, land, water and air, knowing that’s how we build healthy people and healthy communities.

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