Organic gardening in community
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (CNN) -- Neighbors are welcome to help themselves at the Friends' Organic Community Garden.
Begun in early 2000 on the seven-acre lawn of a grand, 1920s-era home used as a Quaker meeting house since 1983, the garden is part food source, part relationship-building project.
"We always wondered how to make a bigger impact on the neighborhood," says Mary Baxter, a member of the small Society of Friends congregation. "So we thought we'd see if there was interest in starting a community garden."
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With the support of a few interested neighbors, the Friends dug a couple of long garden plots. One was a "lazy man's" plot, put together with a minimal loosening of the soil, combined with manure, shredded newsprint and bushels of autumn leaves and covered over with a thick layer of peat. The other was dug in a traditional way with pickaxes and spades.
From the outset, members were committed to using organic gardening techniques.
Organic gardening also is "one way to make a difference and educate people on the harmful effects on the earth of chemicals and pesticides," says Baxter, a former orchestral violinist whose infant twin daughters often "help" with weeding chores.
"Using chemical fertilizers actually kills the soil," explains Bill Reynolds, a licensed clinical social worker and family counselor. "It turns it into something that's like poor quality concrete."
Healthier plants and better tasting food?
Besides, says Reynolds, "I think the food tastes better that's organically grown... and I think the plants themselves are healthier."
Anne Quatrano, co-owner of the Bacchanalia restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, is staking her business on that same notion.
All of the produce served at Bacchanalia is grown by organic means -- much of it by local farmers. Sister businesses the Floataway Café, where Quatrano is executive chef, and gourmet store Star Provisions also stock organic foods.
"We've been buying from the Georgia Organic Co-op ever since we opened eight years ago," says Quatrano. "When we first started buying, there were only a few items. Now, there are maybe 50 growers and at the height of the growing season, they have four pages of items available."
Organic makes sense, according to the chef.
"We shouldn't consume any more chemicals than we already do," she says. "Also, there's an added value to putting your property in a certified organic state. It says you have a level of commitment to a quality of food producing that's superior to anything else."
Some years yield small harvests
Quatrano and her partner, Clifford Harrison, have a 60-acre farm in rural Cartersville, Georgia, about an hour's drive to the northwest of Atlanta. "We've farmed up to 15-20 acres, and the rest is pasture" for the horses, cows and chickens, she says. "Some years we do (well) enough that we don't have to buy from anyone."
The summer of 2000 brought continued drought conditions in the U.S. Southeast, though, and gardens all over suffered from restrictions on water use.
"This was our slimmest year yet," says Quatrano.
Further north in Chattanooga, the Friends' garden also got a bit singed by the sun.
"It stunted some of our productivity, but we've had a learning experience," says Reynolds.
The Friends Meeting also has been awarded a $1,200 neighborhood grant by city government, which will be used to increase community-building and education efforts.
For neighbor Dorothy Gates, the experience has been a definite success.
"I've never grown so many vegetables from seed," says Gates, whose own three-acre property nearby is filled with flowers and herbs. "I've been growing kale, radishes, tomatoes and carrots. The kale did really, really well."
Kitchen recycling center, too
Neighbors also have been able to help themselves to several varieties of lettuce, bell pepper, fresh rosemary, eggplant and watermelon.
"They're nice folks," Gates says of the neighbors she has met. "They seem to want to reach out to everybody in this neighborhood."
Plans are already afoot for next season at the Friends' Organic Community Garden. Reynolds has tilled an additional 500 square feet of property, which will be planted in rapeseed soon.
"We'll cut it and till it in early spring," he says. "It'll help create better humus."
Compost heaps also have given neighbors a place to put their kitchen waste to good use, and future plans are for excess produce to be donated to a local food bank, says Baxter.