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The Common Ground Garden Report from Palo Alto, CA
by Zuzanna Drodz, Common Ground Garden Coordinator

Stanford Alumni Workday at Common Ground Garden in Palo Alto, CA

When I came to the Common Ground Garden in Palo Alto almost two years ago, I expected to be on a steep learning curve at the end of which I would be a good gardener—a learning curve that would move ever forward, fast. Now, as I begin my third growing season, I've learned so much more than I'd hoped. Yet looking back, I can see it's been anything but direct, and my new understanding is much farther-reaching than soil and crop management. Whenever I think I'm starting to understand how to grow lettuce, or wheat, or amaranth, nature throws me a curve—a new disease, an unexpected bumper crop, a mystery. The detective work that ensues is always fun, but I'm still trying to accept the enigma of gardening and recognize more and more how much I don't know. I'm discovering (albeit slowly) there's only so much I control in the garden; it's up to me to do the best I can to prepare the soil deeply and thoroughly and to tend my plants attentively, but in the end it's really up to the plants and the natural systems that affect them. This approach has been useful beyond the plant-based aspects of running the garden, especially in interactions with students, volunteers, and visitors. I've found I can apply many of the lessons I learn from the plants in the garden to working with people in the garden as well. For anyone who participates in a community-based garden project (family gardens included), here are some lessons that have helped me move forward.

Crops appreciate consistency: even moisture, low temperature variability between day and night, and a continual supply of nutrients make for a life of luxury for a plant. When I first started running the garden, I was finishing my schooling, and my schedule was erratic. Since I was still getting my bearings, I had only a few volunteers. Instead of setting a particular day of the week aside as a workday, I just coordinated with them individually to find times that worked for both our schedules. It turned out coordinating alone took a lot of effort, and I could rarely get a big enough group together to get bigger tasks done. Eventually, I decided to host a workday on the first Saturday of every month, as well as a weekly workday every Wednesday morning. This consistent schedule made it possible for volunteers to plan their time accordingly, and for me to be ready with meaningful tasks to do each time we meet. I still do some coordination with individuals, but the weekly and monthly workdays have given me and the volunteers a reliable schedule to work around and have resulted in much bigger turnouts.

In Biointensive gardening, we give a lot of attention to the relationships between our plants. Close-plant spacing allows for the crops in a bed to create a microclimate that is conducive to good plant growth. The outer plants block the wind, the plant density stabilizes temperature between them, and the touching leaves create a canopy over the soil, shading it and helping it retain moisture. We also track the apparent symbiotic and antagonistic relationships that different families of plants have with each other. Although many of the scientific reasons for these relationships are still unknown, it's clear that some plants grow better together than when they are grown separately. Similarly, people also thrive when they can collaborate and share ideas and stories. In coordinating the smaller weekly workdays, I've found that everyone goes away in higher spirits if we can work together on the same projects or at least in the same part of the garden. During the monthly workdays, when there are too many people to allow for collaboration on a single project, coming together for lunch has been a rewarding time to create space for community building. Intentionally creating space for cross-pollination between people has led to exciting new ideas and projects within the garden and beyond.

Although plants can't use language to communicate their needs, they use many other signals: yellowing or drooping leaves, low fruit production, and black spots are among the signs that an attentive gardener looks for. Hand-watering in Biointensive gardening gives the gardener a daily opportunity to check in with each crop and to catch problems early. Yet I have also found that some signals can be confusing—in certain cases, drooping is a sign of under-watering, and in others, it is a sign of over-watering, and it takes extra attention to detail to understand the whole picture. A similar attentiveness and sensitivity is helpful when trying to create outreach programs for a community garden. In seeking to build partnerships with the local schools, I've found it most valuable to spend time understanding their communities' needs before proposing any plan of action. The extra time spent learning about existing programming and already identified needs has made it possible for me to begin the process of building relationships with four schools within walking distance of the garden.

I look forward to continuing up and down and about this wild ride of a learning curve, and to continue to grow as a gardener, a community builder, and a person.

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