Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Madison's newest community garden

I'd like to introduce you to one of the newest community gardens in Madison. Throughout this past winter, a small group of employees at the Madison, Wisconsin-based American Family Insurance got together to talk about their vision to turn some of the land surrounding the company's national headquarters into a community and a garden. Two company employees, Angela and LeeAnn, spearheaded the community garden idea as part of their capstone project for a Master certificate in sustainability from Edgewood College. They had done their research (there are many community gardens in the city) and were now applying what they learned not only about putting seeds in dirt but the many opportunities provided by a community garden. But by the time I learned about the project a few weeks ago, they were well on their way to turning the project over to the employees who would garden in it.

I work at American Family, and during the last two to three years, the company has been working steadily on becoming more sustainable based on the triple bottom line of being good stewards of people, the planet AND profit. I never thought I'd hear the words "social justice" and helping resolve the "food desert" coming from company management, but here were two people talking about improving the health and wellness of employees, planting extra rows of veggies for food pantries and getting back to the company's roots when it was called "Farmer's Mutual" when the company started in 1927.

In late April the site was measured and marked, and the grass was cut very short. For 20 years this land has been allowed to grow grasses and not fertilized or chemically treated.
Earlier this spring, all the employees in Madison received an e-mail describing the project, the opportunity to garden near work, and an invitation to apply for one of the 56 plots.

A few days later, American family held an Earth Day awareness fair over the lunch hour. The city of Madison sanitation department demonstrated rain barrels and compost bins. That's when I determined I absolutely had to have a couple rain barrels at our house. A birding group showed a live feed of the nesting eagles in Decorah, Iowa, and described the kind of birds that one could see around the national headquarters, which has a vast prairie habitat. Our food vendor, Sodexo, gave away coffee grounds from the cafeteria and the on-site coffee shop, and offered to collect coffee grounds for any gardeners who wished to enrich the soil with it. And finally, I had a lengthy conversation with Angela. She was super-enthusiastic too about not only encouraging employees to plant their own food, but she wanted to build a community of people around the garden idea that extended beyond spring planting and fall harvest. This is exactly the kind of community I want to be involved with, and I really want it to succeed.

In early May the site was tilled for the first time, and oats were planted to add "green manure" and crowd out the weeds.
Having already realized the limitations at my own home (a shaded backyard and not sure how much front yard I want to commit to vegetables) I applied for one of the 10 x 10 plots. I had already started this blog when I applied for one of the plots and this seemed like a great opportunity to write about my own misadventures in community gardening. When a second e-mail came across my desk inviting people to apply for one of the many positions on the new Garden Committee, I immediately asked to be one of the plot monitors. I figured it was the best way for me to see what was going on in the garden, providing me with ample inspiration for future blog posts.

A few days later, I received an e-mail with a map and my assigned plot, number 26. One of the very exciting things is more than 70 people applied for plots, and while I'm sorry some people did not get a plot, I am encouraged by the number of people interested in gardening and being part of this community.

Today (May 25) was our first community gardener meeting. Angela informed us that they were already thinking about expanding the garden next year. However, at this time the community garden is a pilot (American Family pilots everything before committing to something permanent, but when we commit, we COMMIT), so there is no certainty beyond this autumn's harvest. And hell, not even that's a certainty, who knows what kind of critters or disease lay in the fields on Madison's far east side, the kind of summer we'll have, etc.?

So what am I going to plant? I have about a half dozen drawings that I've been playing with for both design and content. I started with a Mother's Day conversation with my mom, leaning on her 35+ years of gardening. "What would be the easiest thing to grow?" My thought was that I would not pay daily attention to this garden and I wanted something that would be both low-maintenance and difficult to kill. We decided that a nice crop of potatoes would be a good first start: unlike zucchini or beans, potatoes really can't get too big if harvest is delayed.

After attending a couple of short classes given by Community GroundWorks, the nonprofit arm of Troy Gardens, I've learned that community gardens are one of the worst places to grow potatoes because everyone is growing potatoes and the flea beetles know it. I've been advised that if I don't want to spend my days picking off flea beetles, because after all this is an organic garden and pesticides are not allowed, I would be wise to pick a different crop.

At today's Community Gardener meeting, we learned that we will be able to get into our plots around June 4. I was hoping to get into the garden on June 3 because I have that day off, but I may have to wait until the weekend. I will write more as I decide what to plant, how I plant it, and there will be many stories about Madison's newest community garden.

On May 20 the oats "green manure" cover crop can just be seen. The site will be tilled a second time to turn the oats over, and will be tilled a third time just before laying out the 10x10 plots.


  1. Josh,
    I'm looking forward to hearing about what you will plant. Did your mom mention mulch of some sort? I use marsh hay around my tomato plants. It keeps the dirt from splashing onto the fruit/veggies when it rains and it's supposed to be better for vegs that lay on the ground (cukes, zucchini etc.). Of course, it is also deters weeds and makes the ones that crop up easier to pull out.

  2. The community gardeners are thinking about doing a "bulk buy" of old hay for mulch to be delivered. Much more economical (and sustainable) to have one load dropped off. I hope we get it together before we can get in to plant!

  3. I'm so glad you are doing this. Planting your feet on Mother is as good as growing things. Re: the use of hay as mulch: pull it apart in the slabs it's baled in and don't try to make it fluffy. It will have weed seeds in it and if you let it rot in slabs, there are less weeds to pull. Also, depending on the moisture in it, it might have mold spores, so shaking it isn't good. By laying the slabs down like carpet squares you can snuggle right up to the plants and retain moisture and prohibit weeds. but wait until the ground is warm before laying it. Also the slabs will rot down and leave a soft dirt for next year. You might be interested in reading NO-WORK GARDEN BOOK by Ruth Stout (1971) as she is a garden guru.
    Re: what to about root crops like turnips,parsnips and rutabagas that you can harvest all winter long under the carpet of hay. Imagine yourself out in the tundra during a snowstorm digging up food! You'll be absolutely alone...

  4. Thanks mom!!!! I've got my plot (and plants) all ready to go. Imagine quarters; eggplant, tomatoes/basil, peppers, ONE summer squash, with leeks and annual cut flowers spread around. Nasturtiums under the eggplant (supposed to be good companion plantings)