Since I started my internship with the Alchemical Nursery, I have learned a great deal about permaculture, community outreach, and urban agriculture. I have faced quite a few challenges thus far, but also been the beneficiary of pleasant surprises.
A challenge I did not anticipate has been realizing just how much work it is to create the foundation for a legitimate food forest. If one were to go about creating a conventional urban agriculture project, constructing raised beds would suffice, or if the soil was not contaminated, planting directly into the ground. For the Rhama Forest Garden, however, the process of sheet mulching appears to be much more work. We have to gather cardboard, peel off tape, remove staples, and put it on the ground. After that, one must offload a significant amount of wood chips and mulch on top of the cardboard. It has to be of great abundance so the grass and weeds do not grow through the mulch. Eventually, the cardboard, mulch, and wood chips will break down and form a rich organic layer.
All of the plants we have installed over the last few months require an incredible amount of care, whether it is cages to protect them, flags and stakes to reveal them, or water. The intense heat and droughts we have been facing in Syracuse has also been a significant hurdle for the plants. Since they are so vulnerable and grow quite slowly, they have been extremely susceptible to drying out; sadly we have lost a few. Additionally, the site accumulates a lot of trash since folks traverse it, drop things as they walk on the sidewalks or when they depart the bus.
A weed is only a plant which has yet to prove its usefulness. Since our society has deemed them unsightly (even though they would be part of a forest) we have to pull them out. Weeds are also guilty of absorbing precious water which could be best utilized for the edible plants propagating in the garden. Their resilience in this incredible heat is admirable; as some of our watered and carefully maintained plants die off, these hearty weeds persist despite all the odds against them. One must pull them quickly because their roots will grow very complex if the plant has time to grow large.
A wonderful surprise I have encountered is the community response. Every time I am down in Rhama folks come up to me and ask questions about the garden, offer advice, or pick some plants to eat. Children and elderly folks have been the most enthusiastic and helpful and it has been compelling to hear a grandfather tell tales about the raspberry bushes in his backyard, or to see the children smile when I tell them they will be able to walk through the forest garden and pick berries all around them. Most enthralling is when I tell folks that the garden is open to the public and everything is free, they have a flabbergasted reaction.
Coordinating the social networking and digital outreach, such as Twitter and Facebook has been a lot of fun. Promotion of garden workdays, the DISHES contest, the clothing swap, and other Alchemical events has been well received and fun. It has been interesting to learn which keywords, phrases, videos, and tactics gather the greatest public response. I feel as if keeping it real, friendly, and yet not too personal has been a recipe of success for my outreach thus far.
How have I been doing? Please let me know in the comments below; I love constructive criticism!
P.S. Hope to see you at our workday this saturday, 12 PM at the Rhama Garden, 3100 S. Salina St.
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