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5 Years, 5 Steps to Community Garden Collaboration

My synagogue garden will be five years old this spring. That is how long it took to become a truly congregational enterprise, and not just a labor of love for me.

Step 1: Get Leadership On Board

Initially, I wanted to build the garden in the front of the shul. That was nixed by the board—which I am currently a third year member—and it was suggested that we put the garden behind the building, along the edge of the parking lot. And, It only took 1.5 years to get that far!

I was happy to have any space at all, and the rabbi built what became three garden beds over three years. It is not the most elaborate garden, but he built it with a seating ledge for comfort, which was a really nice touch, and considerate to those of us who spend the most time pulling weeds and planting vegetables.

Step 2: Plant What Looks Good and Eats Better

The more lush the garden became, the more excited the congregants became, too. Each Shabbat, I would point out the new growth, and more and more members would give their input as to what they would like to see grown, tell me about what they took home, and offer advice based on their own gardening experiences.

Each year, and often more than once each year, we added mature compost, peat moss and humus to create a nutritious soil mix for the tomatoes, peppers, garlic, herbs (borage, multiple varieties of mint, oregano, parsley, cilantro, dill, rosemary, fenugreek and basil), radishes, arugula, various lettuces, mustard greens, carrots, chard, kale, broccoli, cabbages, watermelons, cucumbers, zucchinis, Hubbard squash, string beans (yellow, purple and green) sugar snap peas, beets, luffahs, and the ever-present invasive vines. We planted from seeds gathered from my personal collection, purchased packets and starts, and donations from members’ home garden extras.

The garden is also home to a wide variety of insect and animal life. I’ve seen baby bunnies dart out from under the veritable jungle of watermelon vines being pulled out to make way for winter crops. There are at least four kinds of bees, flies, gnats, ants, and any number of other creepy crawlies that help create and destroy the garden environment.

What makes this garden so special is that it continues to grow both in plant matter and as a tool for engagement.

Step 3: Put the Kids to Work

It wasn’t always that way. The first summer, it was pretty much just me and as much personal manual labor I could muster in the oppressive heat of a Nashville summer. I would arrive shortly after sunrise, or at the very least by 9:00am, perform garden maintenance for an hour or so, or until I ran out of drinking water and was thoroughly filthy. Then I would head home, lie down on my cool kitchen floor and head out to my own garden for another hour or two.

That first fall, I got my Sunday School class involved. They complained about getting dirty, about being cold, about nearly everything. That didn’t stop my making them work the cow manure into the soil. It was, in part, an effort to bring them down to earth in a very real sense.

The second summer was much the same as the first, but this time, Rabbi had built a second bed. We had more room, and thus more plants to tend. By the third year, with a third garden bed, my class would beg to go outside and play in the garden.

On sunny days, the younger kids would be on the adjacent playground and wander over to learn about the plants and try what we picked. All the kids wanted to bring vegetables home. What we didn’t take with us, we left in the kitchen for Kiddush lunch after services that week, or would arrange to have delivered with other food to ill and elderly in the community.

Step 4: Recruit Financiers

That third summer, a donor paid for a truckload of compost and $200 worth of garden supplies. Knowing that we had a steady funding source, and members interested in seeing the garden not only survive, but thrive was the boost we needed.

That third summer, I was ill, and had limited ability to take on much of the garden maintenance. The funding allowed me to purchase seedlings, which were easy to establish and keep healthy, rather than starting from seeds and monitoring the garden daily, thinning plants, and cultivating as I had in the past.

The funding also gave the funders something to be proud of, a visual representation of how their money was being spent, that it was put to use and was the source of a true growth investment.

Step 5: Say Thank You and Stand Back

By the fourth summer, a Russian member of the congregation volunteered to water the garden as needed. He had donated cilantro seeds from his own garden the year before, and I knew he was keen to get involved. He only wanted to water, and that was enough for me.

At the same time, there was a volunteer effort to clean up the landscape around the shul. Some of this involved clearing out vines (including poison ivy) around the edges of the vegetable garden. I asked that a thank you note be placed in the weekly announcements, which also encouraged any and all volunteers to weed as needed, and to pick ripe produce and put it into the shul’s kitchen for Kiddush lunch that week.

That summer I was working multiple jobs and didn’t have a lot of time to spend at the shul, let alone in my home garden. What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of support and hands. At the end of spring, a bar mitzvah family donated vegetable and herb starts that had served as their centerpieces. Other congregants brought and planted their extra tomatoes. By the end of the summer, we had about 10 of the biggest, best producing tomato plants I have ever seen. It was as if the garden knew we were all working together.

By the time Sunday School began again, we pulled eight giant bags of compost, pulled off five grocery bags full of green and ripe tomatoes, and were left with what is now the skeleton of our garden. Come spring, we will have a full garden overhaul. The now-bowing garden wall boards will be replaced, the magical soil will be saved, and my class will get the garden ready for summer and fall harvests thanks to another donor who will engage his professional landscapers in the effort.

Oh, and we just had a composter donated! My class loves it. We’ve started doing compost lessons and talked last week about what they’d like to plant this year. They want all of the usuals, plus requests for Brussels sprouts. Talk about progress.

I believe in incremental change, saying thank you, and encouraging all who want to participate, in whatever way makes sense for them. Bring on the gardening!

Miriam Leibowitz is a long time vegetarian, avid home cook, alumna of the JOIN for Justice Jewish Organizing Fellowship, and currently coordinating a campaign to engage clergy and community leaders across Tennessee in reproductive justice issues.

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