Putting the Community in a Community Garden

Reader Contribution by Stan Slaughter
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I’ve been associated with community gardens for many years but never was a member of one.

I once heard a saying that the most important word in community garden is community. Now, I would have told you that I knew what that meant, but this year has brought me much closer to understanding the truth of that saying. I belong to Unity Village Chapel on the grounds of Unity Village, a micro-town adjacent to Lee’s Summit, Missouri. The village started as Unity Farm and from the 1920s through the 1960s was a major food producer with as many as 6,000 chickens, two acres of asparagus, 4,000 apple trees, Big! That’s all gone now but the 1,400 acre farm remains along with a giant apple barn that was headquarters for the cider operation.

About four years ago a group of church members formed a non-profit, The Gardens at Unity Village, and leased 7 acres of land and the use of the first floor of the apple barn. That is where this story begins. 

My wife served on the initial board and we’ve been close to the group all along. This year as our gardens became more fertile, we decided on row leaders as a way to organize the production. Each row is five feet wide and 200 feet long. Each row leader had some crops to grow that were important to our market stand and some discretion to try what they wanted.

The seven of us worked together with our own group of volunteers and we’ve had a great year despite the heat. We had to communicate and cooperate — Who did the last watering? Will you pick the peas this Saturday? We’ve learned from each other and learned to respect the diverse backgrounds we bring to the garden. We hauled straw bales, compost and chicken manure. We’ve battled deer, raccoons and even turkeys.(To see what we’ve faced, this tender, unprotected bush has been shredded by deer as high as they can reach.)

We’ve learned to specialize and organize. And we’ve realized that together we can do SO much more than we can separately. For example, one of our members lives a long ways east and found an abandoned nursery.

We got permission and salvaged a 24-by-96-foot high tunnel with glazing for free! The Village provided the earth work to level a pad and we now have a working high-tunnel greenhouse. Fifteen men came together, rented a trencher, cut an asphalt road and dug 300 feet of water line, and provided city water to the old barn, the high tunnel and the gardens in one day! In keeping with our educational mission we offer workshops on raw foods, fermented foods, wildcrafting, beekeeping and many others.

We’re even educating our customers to the point that they buy all our organic, heirloom tomatoes before any of the commercial produce sells.

The list of amazing accomplishments is long and impressive. Have we missed opportunities and failed with crops-lots. Have there been strong opinions and disagreements- bet on it. But we’ve seen what we all can do when we each do our part and it’s truly powerful. In the process we’ve become the COMMUNITY that brings the garden to life. 

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