Gadfly learns about the Southside Garden Alliance

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Southside Garden Alliance Overview

Gadfly absolutely loves this job.

Mary Toulouse spends exactly 2:43 (less time than it takes for this morning’s tea and toast) at City Council May 19 pitching the idea of community gardens, and within a short time a whole new dimension of our town opened up to him.

Kim Carrell-Smith pointed Gadfly to Connor Burbridge, and in the meantime Breena Holland provided meaningful background and he also found Ken Raniere’s delightful article on this vegetable aspect of Southside history. Then Connor appeared with this valuable information below about the quite ambitious Southside Garden Alliance.

We look forward to Connor posting soon, but Gadfly invites you to read this detailed overview of the project with timeline beginning Winter 2019 and extending into 2021.

Southside Garden Alliance Overview

A timeline upon which no doubt the coronavirus has unfortunately left a mark.

Gardens 2

Southside Garden Alliance Overview

Mission: The Southside Backyard Gardens Alliance seeks to build community connections, increase community health, and advocate for environmental sustainability through the creation of community spaces and backyard gardens throughout South Bethlehem and through educational workshops, children’s camps, and community potlucks.

Vision: There are a number of urban agriculture projects on Bethlehem’s Southside, including the Southside Initiative’s MLK Garden and Esperanza Garden, as well as nascent gardens at the Lynnfield Community Center, Southside Permaculture Park, Victory House, and Hispanic Center. The Southside Backyard Gardens Alliance will act to help collaborate efforts between these projects as well as provide resources to help expand them. The Southside Backyard Gardens Alliance will provide resources and technical assistance to would-be community backyard gardeners and will aid in the construction of garden beds with involved community members. Rainwater barrels and container gardens can also be constructed and installed in community members’ yards. A tool library will be available for community members to begin their own projects or expand on existing ones. Master Gardeners will provide discussions on how to build and maintain healthy soil and healthy plants. Southside Arts District can help infuse local art into the events to increase engagement and promote local artists. Health and Nutrition experts from the community can provide information on healthy eating habits, and local chefs can teach creative ways to prepare various vegetables. Southside Backyard Gardens Alliance will host regular potlucks to build connections among community and conduct a dialogue on how we all can come together to better meet the community’s needs.

Wonderful project, wonderful people!

Add community oriented farms to the conversation

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Gadfly:

I had a second comment.  (cf. “Maintaining a community is harder than maintaining a garden“)

I think the distinction between community gardens and farms is important. Both are important. To me, a community garden is more about improving quality of life by giving people in cities a conveniently located place to dig in the dirt, grow a few plants, learn, play, and interact with neighbors. A community-oriented farm can provide some of those benefits but is scaled up (more land, equipment, paid staff) to provide a much more significant amount of food to the community. The Seed Farm in Emmaus is a good example. And then there are organizations like Rolling Harvest that focus on the distribution of food, which is the biggest need right now. Farmers are producing plenty of food to feed everyone in this country, but we need governmental and nonprofit leadership to get the food to the people.

Gray Simpson

A brief history of Southside gardens

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Tip o’ the hat to Mary Toulouse who kicked off this thread on community gardens by making a pitch for the City developing both short-term and longer term plans for the establishment of same.

Historically speaking, as this BAPL resource shows, there is more here than meets the current eye regarding gardens in South Bethlehem.

Bethlehem Area Public Library (Janine Santoro, Elizabeth Saraceno), “Digging into the Roots of South Side Gardening: Pre-World War I Immigrant Gardens and Today.”

The history of gardens in Bethlehem includes:

personal gardens (pre-WWI)

Depression gardens (1930s)

Victory gardens (1940s)

Thrift gardens (WWII)

The demise of backyard gardening (1950s-1960s)

pocket gardens (today)

“Today, the Southside Garden Alliance and Penn State Master Gardeners have shared their skills at the South Side Branch of Bethlehem Area Public Library free-of-charge to provide gardening workshops of all kinds to South Side patrons, and anyone else who wants to learn more about gardening right at home to create their own ‘backyard paradisos!'”

Ken Raniere’s “Backyard Paradiso” article in the “Southern Exposure” newsletter published by the South Bethlehem Historical Society and linked from the BAPL piece is delightful.

“Maintaining a community is harder than maintaining a garden”

Gadfly:

I’ve been gardening at Martin Luther King park on Carlton Avenue since I moved to Bethlehem in 2018. The garden was well organized at one time — a former president of Lehigh University was highly involved. A Lehigh professor was coordinating things when I arrived but had to leave shortly after, leaving just a small student group and a couple of community members to manage the site. Maintaining a community is harder than maintaining a garden.

Gray Simpson

Community gardens need infrastructure from the City and a good manager

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Breena Holland is an Associate Professor at Lehigh University in the Department of Political Science and the Environmental Initiative. She is a past director of Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative.

ref: Mary Toulouse’s pitch for a planning process to develop community gardens.

Gadfly:

I have tried to keep various community gardens afloat on the south side for a number of years. Interest and use of the gardens waxes and wanes over time, but they often face basic infrastructural challenges that inhibit success.

For instance, many years ago when Alice Gast was president of Lehigh University, she built a community garden in the MLK Park on Carleton Ave. However, no one ever set up a water spigot for this garden, so we have had an ongoing challenge of sustaining water there.

A community garden should not be set up without a source of water. We put water totes in the garden, but then they must be filled by the city, which is difficult to coordinate. If a nearby home owner fills them, then their monthly bill for sewage treatment increases, because the provider thinks all that water going into the tote is going down the house’s drain.

Another problem is ongoing maintenance. The city has not  been willing to manage the weeds or otherwise take care of a community garden on public property, even when they will let people garden there–I’m sure you can imagine how large that task might become if gardeners started expecting city workers to take care of their garden beds.

Consequently, the gardens need people who are committed to not just growing their own food but taking care of the collective space. This has been a challenge at times. But I think a reliable source of water at a garden would draw more support from community members, so the development of infrastructure must go hand-in-hand with increasing expectations for gardeners to take care of their collective space.

When the Maze garden was destroyed, a group of students at Lehigh University were successful in working with Mayor Donchez to develop a section of the Greenway between Taylor and Webster streets, which the students used for gardening and cooking programing they organized for the kids in the Bethlehem Boys and Girls Club. They planted fruit trees and installed raised beds and used the garden until Boys and Girls Club was moved. At that point, the garden was too far away to use in the same way.

This section of the Greenway is now maintained by a group of volunteers at Lehigh University and also by a local group that takes care of the beautiful Native Plants Garden that is also on that section of the Greenway. Because of the centrality of the location and the public nature of it, we have never been able to make this a garden where community members can grow their own food. That probably would require fencing and an area that does not have so much traffic, so the Greenway is not the best location.

There are other areas for gardens. For some time there were beds up at Ullman Park, but this garden suffered from a lack of infrastructure and consequently a lack of commitment.

For this reason, as mentioned above, I have come to believe that creating the right infrastructure is the most important part of a garden’s success. There must be water, fencing, beds, and someone who can ensure certain tasks are handled, such as compost delivery, waste removal, path maintenance, weed control, etc.

It’s possible that a motivated community group can do these latter tasks on their own, if the water and fencing is there, but I don’t think it’s wise to expect this when gardeners have to lug their own water to their beds and fight off pests that eat their food.

Other crucial resources needed are tools and information and education. But it might make more sense for people to use these things to garden in their own backyards (if they have a backyard) rather than on city property, where the water remains a limiting factor.

In general, gardens are great if the city commits to providing some infrastructure and you have a tyrannical manager who also happens to be a good community leader, which is not easy to find.

CSAs (Community-supported Agriculture) may be a better way to feed people than gardens, but that’s another conversation.
Let’s keep this conversation going. I think that in certain places gardens can really thrive and become meaningful to the community.

Breena

“The farmers are concerned about having enough affordable food for the community”

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Video: City Council meeting May 19
begin min. 28:50

Apropos of her discussion about providing healthy local food at the Rose Garden Farmers’ Market, at the end of her public comment presentation at City Council last Tuesday Mary Toulouse made a pitch for a planning process to develop community gardens:

  • Food pantries are looking for food.
  • Farmers are experiencing the destructive effects of climate change.
  • “The farmers are concerned about having enough affordable food for the community.”
  • Some council members spoke about having community gardens at the last meeting.
  • Community gardens in city parks can help with the food situation.
  • There’s a community park in Battery Park, New York City.
  • There’s a community park in the Paris Tuileries garden in front of the Louvre.
  • A successful community garden needs planning, long-term planning, the kind that might be done by an Action Group or the Environmental Advisory Council.
  • But short-term perhaps the City could designate some sites.

Gadfly knew it was a crazy idea, but he wished the community garden at 3rd and New before the Zest building had not only been allowed to remain but was enhanced. Think of the message — the different message — that a community garden at the gateway to the Southside would say about the values in our town.

Gadfly remembers sitting in on a Southside 2020 meeting last year at which the large number of small community gardens on the southside was discussed. Can anybody fill in information on this? Are residents already highly engaged in this kind of activity?

What do you think of community gardens in city parks?