Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We are all just one call away from being gardeners

Posted By on Wed, Mar 28, 2012 at 8:30 AM

I have two approaches when it comes to cold calls, those targeted attempts to sell me, the homeowner, a set of replacement windows or an alarm system. Usually I lie and say I have a family member in that business. Plan B: Pass the phone to my wife. Neither makes me proud.

"A man called this afternoon and said he'd like to come by and build a garden for us," my wife told me two weeks ago.

"What? How did he know we wanted to build a garden? How did he get our name?" I asked, immediately on guard.

"He just plucked it out of the phone book," she said. "But I trust him."

And so last Thursday, just before 9 a.m., a red pickup with a slurry of dirt and water in the bed and a paper bag of seed packets in the passenger seat pulled into my driveway. A man with a sunburned neck and close-cropped, beginning-to-gray curls came to my door and asked if he could look at my lawn.

"What kind of trees are these?" he asked.


"These are elm," he corrected me. "You're lucky. Not many elms left around these parts."

Our lawn tour continued for another 10 minutes before we settled on a small patch between a light pole and a parcel of dead grass that, when we moved in, was home to a dead tree.

"Sixty-five dollars?" the gardener said.

We shook hands, and soon he was using his roofer's shovel to pile up chunks of sod like Chia Pets in a Kmart clearance aisle. An hour later, I was right there next to him, using a small pitchfork to till the soil by hand and break up big clods of dirt to prepare a 4-foot-by-12-foot rectangle for a top cover of compost. Within about four hours, the gardener finished planting neat little rows of lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, turnips and radishes.

It was then that I asked him one last time if I could mention his name in this space and write about his month-old business.

"Give the publicity to someone else," he said, having already repeatedly demurred. He drove off in his truck with a promise to call in a week and see if anything had sprouted.

This would appear to be proof of life. Turnips to be exact.
  • This would appear to be proof of life. Turnips to be exact.
I wouldn't blame you if you didn't believe this story. I'd be skeptical, too, if I weren't staring out my window at a smart-looking patch of turned-up dirt where part of my lawn used to be. This is the dream of every would-be gardener - that someone who knows what he's doing will parachute in and just build the damn thing for you.

That never happens, so you make do with a container garden of herbs over the sink, a bag of vegetables from the farmers market. Sure, you could get a cold call like mine, but my name is under B. You might have many seasons to wait before your number comes up.

Still, you have options. You don't have to wait by the cordless like some jilted vegetable lover. And because the only work I did was cutting the check and moving a bit of dirt, I feel that I should pay it forward to those gardeners who have yet to overcome their inertia. Gardening can have a low barrier to entry, if you just know whom to call.

You might start with Kansas City Community Gardens, in Swope Park. Now in its 33rd year, the local nonprofit has an estimated 1,000 members and 180 community-partner gardens.
"Our mission is to help people grow food to feed their families," says program director Andrea Mathew. "The idea is to teach people when to plant and how to plant and hopefully help them have success."

The weekly Friday classes taught by KCCG (courses titled "Raised Bed Gardening" and "Early Spring Crops" are next) don't require that you become a member. But benefits of membership exceed the $10 annual cost (which drops to $2 for qualifying low-income families) that includes 10 packages of seeds and a 5-pound bag of fertilizer. Beyond plant material, KCCG also rents tillers to members (costing $8-$15) or sends someone to help till your yard ($8-$23). And now's the time to get a plot at one of the organization's five community gardens, where gardeners swap secrets and techniques during the growing season.

"Most of our members want to garden at home, but the community garden spaces are for those that don't have the space or can't use their land because they rent or have too much shade," Mathew says.

You can rent a ground plot (20 feet by 25 feet) or a raised bed (4 feet by 12 feet) for $25 a year. The plots in Swope Park are sold out - the waiting list contains 30 names right now - but spaces remain available in the Ivanhoe-Richardson Community Garden (36th Street and Park) and at 8100 Ozark Road.

If KCCG teaches you to garden, Steve Mann teaches you to believe. His Food Not Lawns program replaces grass with gardens, transforming yards through Prairie Ecosystems Management, his landscape-consulting business.

"We talk about people's dreams and needs," Mann, 62, says. "And then we figure out what we can do, based on the constraints and resources available."

His typical consultation starts with a Google Earth assessment of the topography. Once he develops a site plan, he'll probably remind you that your garden could benefit other people. Mann spearheads the Sweet Potato Project, a coalition of community gardens that benefits the hungry. He hopes that this year, the project's fifth, growers across the city will produce 20,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, with half donated to Harvesters. Mann is also working with architecture students from Kansas State University to develop and design vertical growing systems that are attractive, educational and functional.

Another of his projects is the Squash Blossom Food Cooperative, a re-imagining of the neighborhood grocery store. The co-op is one of the exhibitors slated for the Kansas City Food Circle's Eat Local and Organic Expos, which gather 35 farmers and food producers over the next two weekends.

"We're so divorced from where our food comes from," says the Food Circle's Brandi Schoen. "This is a chance to connect eaters with farmers and help people take care of themselves."

Emphasis at the 12th annual event is on community-supported agricultural (CSA) programs. "A CSA is a good opportunity for gardeners to augment what they're getting or get ideas about what they can grow in this climate," Schoen says. Among the goods for sale: transplants for your garden and free-range eggs and meat. The first expo is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 31, in the Shawnee Civic Center (13817 Johnson Drive). The second is from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at the Penn Valley Community College Gym (3201 Southwest Trafficway).

The first year I lived in Kansas City, I had fresh produce delivered to my door. By the second year, I'd joined a CSA and had volunteered some hours on a farm. Last year, I managed to grow a single green pepper from a repurposed flowerpot. And this year, I'm hoping for salads sprouting a few feet from my curb. We'll see whether I can harvest more than dirt. For now, I've learned one more truth: There's no secret to gardening, just secret gardeners.

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