One area of passion for me is food justice and security. As a principle, community gardens serve as a key strategy to increase food security and access, make productive use of vacant land, and other great reasons. In grad school, I used my internship time to work with communities on food justice and access as well as did research on the subject. I also completed the courses of the Master Gardener Program at UDC, which gave me more training on holistic gardening and farming techniques. I found that through these courses, the teachers touted the benefits of community gardens without talking about the real experiences of them. Community gardening, for me, existed in the abstract since I didn’t have access to a community garden.
When I moved to Fairfax County, I was excited to join my local community garden and apply what I learned in my experience, work, and training into a community garden until I learned that there was a wait list for a plot in the garden. I was overjoyed a few weeks ago to get an email about a plot that had finally opened up…
…And then I visited the plot. It had a thick carpet of the kind of weeds that hold onto the soil for dear life like dandelions, spring onions, thistles, and mint. On the bus ride home I thought to myself: Could I really handle this? What would I be getting myself into if I agreed to take on this plot? Could I put all my education, past knowledge, and skills to work, on my own, to manage this plot? How could I get all of this done by May 1st, when the plots needed to be at least 2/3 prepared for planting? How would I get all the tools and materials to do this work?
I accepted the plot, sketched out my plan, and purchased materials. After a few hours of working on the garden, it became apparent that this was more than a one-person job. That’s when my neighbor, Pedro showed up. He was tending his plot and saw my struggles. He didn’t speak much English, and I don’t speak much Spanish beyond greetings. However through a combination of gesturing, google translate, calling his lovely daughter to help translate, and visuals, he helped me understand that there was no way around the harder work (that I was avoiding) it would take to get this in order. He showed me his handiwork on other adjacent plots, where he had helped the renter install a fence, build raised beds, or maintained the garden.
Pedro brought his tools over to my plot and started to work, showing me what to do. The feminist inside me started stomping her foot, “You know what you are doing, this guy is going to mansplain to you, with all of your experience and education, how to garden?!” The intersectional voice inside me said, “shut up, watch, and learn”. Pedro’s experience gardening helped me transition my book learning into action.
Over the next two weekends, we both worked hard on the plot and I tried to do most of the heavy lifting that I could- as it is my plot and my responsibility. His knowledge showed me how to make my sketch become a reality. He even showed me a trick for using the twine I’d brought to measure out the beds without cutting it so it could be reused.. While we worked, we connected over our passion for gardening, laughed about a little bird that saw the feast of Japanese Beetle grubs we’d unearthed, and talked about our families. His granddaughter hung out with us, even pitching in at one point to help hold the landscape bags open as I forked in a decaying pile of weeds.
One weekend, another fellow plot-holder was working his tiller through his plot. Despite my awkwardness and with Pedro’s encouragement, I ran over and asked my neighbor if he’d bring his tiller over for my plot. Knowing to stay in my lane of expertise in this case, I stood back and watched as my two neighbors pulled levers and pushed it through the soil of my plot. By the time I left that day, the plot was neatly laid out in beds, ready for my started seedlings. A few weeks later Pedro helped me plant my tomatoes that were rapidly growing taller than my toddler on our balcony.
The thing that touched me the most is that he also he had rehung my plot door, rehung the latch and lock, and added an interior locking mechanism, because he wanted to ensure I was safe when I was working alone.
I had finally experienced the hands-on greatness of a community garden. People talk to each other, said hi, and talk about their gardens. But more specifically for my experience, how intergenerational and intercultural learning can be so beneficial with community gardens as the medium that brings people together. Moreover, I learned to get over my millennial anxieties and open myself up to the opportunity to learn from someone else, from a different background and different culture. Despite my training and experience working in growing food, I learned new things from my neighbors. I’m forever grateful and indebted to Pedro, if not for him, I’d still be knee-deep in the weeds.
Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and hobbies, interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grassroots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems and environmental solutions that meet the needs of all users.