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Radical Plots

In Vermont, gardening isn't just a hobby anymore


Published June 4, 2008 at 12:28 p.m.

  • Jordan Silverman
  • Bud Shriner

When Bud Shriner asked his friend Janie Cohen if she wanted to curate his sizable vegetable garden near the University of Vermont this year, she wasn't sure she'd have time to dig in. Directing UVM's Robert Hull Fleming Museum tends to keep her hands full. But Shriner wanted to focus on "another garden in his life," as Cohen puts it. So she considered the idea. "I had helped Bud in his garden last year, and it was really my first experience on that scale," she recalls. "I helped him plant and worked on it through the season, and realized there are benefits and joys." On the con side, "there's already so much juggling in my life," she muses.

So Cohen came up with a creative solution. The next morning she asked around at the office whether any of the museum's staffers were interested in sharing the fertile, organically managed patch, and quickly found four participants. A couple of them had some gardening experience. Others had none. A Fleming board member and two local friends wanted in, too.

Instead of dividing the garden into eight little plots, the group decided to do something a bit more unusual: They will garden collaboratively, choosing what to plant as a group and sharing the cost, toil and fruits thereof. Each member of the octet will help weed and water four varieties of tomatoes, mesclun greens, edamame and even a sole experimental artichoke. "[The labor] is really based on the honor system," Cohen says. "We're a professional staff, and we work in a context with a lot of trust. If we hadn't worked together before, we'd probably have had to spell things out to a greater extent." The gardeners jokingly refer to their plan as FSA — Fleming Supported Agriculture.

To members of the local agricultural community, such creative solutions look like just the tip of a major trend: Vermonters are getting serious about their gardens. According to Jim Flint, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Burlington Gardens, "The level of interest [in gardening] has been very enthusiastic and very high. It's the silver lining to some of the issues of food and energy costs that people are facing."

Julie Rubaud, owner of a Hinesburg-area organic seedling biz called Red Wagon Plants, agrees. "[Gardening] counters the cycles of the economy. When the economy falters, people garden more."

Sure, the uptick in gardening is probably in part a response to economic pressure — not to mention the still-burgeoning localvore movement. But these new gardeners aren't treating the work of growing beets and peas as if it were drudgery. Flint, who teaches a 20-week-long gardening course at the Ethan Allen Homestead, says he finds his participants committed and joyous. Why? "If you can not just feed yourself but have an abundance from these gardens, it's just a wonderful feeling," Flint enthuses.

Rubaud agrees. "Gardening brings all of this beautiful time into people's lives, doing something that takes you away from the computer, away from the cellphone, all of the things that make us a little harried," she says. "It's a little clichéd, I know, but it's beautiful to me."

One thing Flint finds "particularly exciting is to see how many people in their twenties and early thirties are looking at gardening with a different lens: With the idea that this isn't just something that would be a neat hobby, but that growing your own food can be part of your way of life," he says. And many of these young people are seeking out resources, both on the Internet and in the community, so they can learn the skills necessary to hoe their furrows with savvy, not just the sweat of their brows.

This April, Burlington's Department of Parks & Recreation asked Flint to teach a basic gardening class. "In the past we've done these and maybe a half-dozen people come," he says. This time, 26 eager novices showed up, wondering how to "plan, grow and cultivate" their own food. By mid-May, Flint says, every one of the Parks & Rec community garden plots had been snapped up, despite the addition of a new garden at Baird Park on Pine Street.

Not only do newbies want to know how to care for their seedlings properly, but they're thinking ahead to the fall, seeking tips on canning and freezing their spoils. Flint hopes they follow through with their plans. "It's a very labor-intensive and time-consuming, long-evenings-after-work process," he admits. "You've got to be there and spend those evenings, sort of like squirrels."

Rubaud, who sells more than 240 hybrid and heirloom fruits, veggies and herbs, plus as many ornamentals, estimates that the edible side of her business is "up 80 percent from last year." She's had to hire extra staff to keep up with the demand. "One difference I've noticed this year," Rubaud points out, "is that people are coming back for second plantings of lettuce and broccoli. People are learning that to really produce your food, it's not about putting in a garden on Memorial Day weekend and that's it."

By planting the same crop multiple times throughout the season, gardeners ensure that "just as your first plants peter out, you have a fresh plant coming along," Rubaud explains. It's the smart alternative to weathering a flood of zucchini for a few weeks in mid-summer, then going without.

The green-thumb trend looks pretty good to Joneve Murphy and Cara Barous of Shelburne's Blue's Garden, part of a trio of ag businesses collectively called Bay Harbor Farms. In addition to growing vegetables for their community-supported agriculture shareholders, the duo runs a side business called Blue's Garden Girls, helping home gardeners with all aspects of DIY veggie propagation. "Both of us feel strongly about helping people grow at home," Murphy says.

To folks who want to get their hands dirty, the BGGs offer consultations and basic assistance. For those who want the fresh veggies without adding weed-pulling and watering to their already-hectic lives, Murphy and Barous will do as much as their clients will pay for. "We've even said that we'll harvest it and put it in a basket at your back door," says Murphy.

Why would somebody want a garden if they don't have time to work there? "For many people it's a therapeutic space," Barous conjectures. "And you can just walk out your back door and pick something for dinner." Plus, unlike a CSA share or even a good farmers' market, owning your garden gives you total control over what gets planted, whether you crave only baby Asian vegetables or acres of heirloom tomatoes and peppers. Finally, it's a smart use of a rangy backyard. "Vegetables take less water than lawn, and they give you back more than some place to put your feet," Murphy declares.

Blue's Garden Girls is only in its first year, working with a small client list, but "I know it's a successful business in other parts of the country," Murphy says. Both BGGs admit their labor — at $30 per hour — isn't cheap. After all, one tenet of sustainable agriculture is paying workers a livable wage. But they point out that their knowledge could be invaluable if the economy sinks deeper into the doldrums over the next few years. "If you want to save the money, you want to do it right," Murphy asserts. "You don't want to waste the time and resources making mistakes."

One gardening solution Murphy is particularly fond of is called a "planting tower." The construction, which piles fertile soil around a drainage system, is ideal for those without acres of earth. "You can make them however high, and you've got the whole top of it and the sides all the way around," says Murphy, who suggests planting carrots, beets, baby greens and radishes on top, and vines such as cucumbers and melons on the side. A single tower, which she estimates can be built for $300 to $500 depending on size, could provide enough produce for two people. And once you've made the investment, it's good for a lifetime. "This is a design I got from a farmer in South Africa and modified," Murphy says. "I want to build as many as I can. They're great space savers."

At the "extremely fertile" Fleming plot, Cohen says there's plenty of room but the gardeners are keeping their design pretty simple. They plan to do successive plantings of lettuce, but most of their other crops are already in the ground. "Right now we're in the period where we water, weed and wait," says Kristin Kilbashian, 38, who has "grown tomatoes and basil in containers once," she says, but never had her own garden.

Kilbashian, who often buys produce at City Market and Price Chopper ("organic whenever it's affordable, but price is a huge issue"), says her 1-year-old twins are the impetus for putting her hands in the dirt. "Food costs are so high and fuel costs are going higher," she laments. "It's just good sense for everybody to know . . . how we can provide for ourselves, food-wise and fiscally."

Kilbashian is particularly looking forward to the tomatoes and salad items. "I could live on salad," she enthuses. She expects to learn plenty from the more seasoned gardeners in the group: "I'm so new, I'm just excited for anything and everything. There are some things I've never seen grow!"

Perry Price, 26, is just as green as Kilbashian, and just as psyched to learn. "I don't have any gardening experience at all," he says. "I've always wanted to [grow my own food], but have been a little intimidated. This is an awesome opportunity to work with people who have more experience."

A fairly new Vermont transplant, Price finds it refreshing to see an "emphasis on eating locally and being aware of Vermont products like cheese and maple." In Colorado, where he grew up, he says, people seemed more interested in grooming their grass than in making their land fruitful. "Colorado is always in drought, and people spend lots of time and effort making their lawns green," he gripes. "You should either be growing native plants or growing food."

Price also notes, "The current war has lasted longer than World War II [in America]," but that instead of encouraging verdant Victory Gardens and frugality, the government is pushing "economic stimulus" and spending.

Julie Rubaud has been thinking about that earlier era, too. "The Victory Gardens of the Second World War were about feeding families, but also about creating a sense of independence and security, all couched in the patriotic lingo of the wartime propaganda," she says. She sees the resurgence of gardening as the reflection of a desire to "feed and nurture ourselves independently . . . and ironically . . . to counter the dominant paradigm of our food system, which came out of the World War II military-industrial complex."

That's a lot of world-historical weight to put on a row of peas. But it may not be misplaced. Even in the throes of rising fuel prices and grocery-store sticker shock, Flint says, he feels hopeful when he ponders the abundant crop of new community gardens springing up around the state. He's also encouraged by professional farmers' willingness to donate their excess to area food shelves, and by independent projects such as the Fleming Eight's. "I think the scarcity isn't a bad thing, if it means there's less waste and that more of what we grow and spend time raising is going to do good," Flint speculates. "There will be fewer apples rotting on the ground in the fall because they're of more value. When energy is cheap, it seems that food is cheap, too."

Flint acknowledges that low-income Vermonters will face a struggle in years to come. But if all goes well, he says, generosity, good planning and lush vegetable gardens will mitigate the hunger pangs. "Individual families and households will face difficult decisions," he warns. "But if it can prompt more people to grow their own food and to share with others, that's a really good thing. I'm hoping this is just the beginning of a renaissance that will be long lasting."