Get into the garden

Going green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 14, 2012

As the city considers expanding its community garden program, Portland has the opportunity to delve deeper into urban permaculture ("permanent agriculture") — building ecological systems that model nature, with plants that work together with minimal maintenance to create self-sustaining biodiversity, on city land.

On Monday, March 19, at 6 pm at the Merrill Auditorium rehearsal hall, the city will host a public forum about community gardens, exploring how they fit into the local food network, what can be done to increase participation and access, and if any city-owned land may be appropriate for program expansion. This is the first forum of its kind, and Troy Moon, of the city's Department of Public Services, hopes for broad participation from both current and potential gardeners, as well as those who are interested in eating local and promoting healthy lifestyles.

A spate of spring-like days might have you thinking about getting your hands dirty — raking leaves, pulling weeds, and planning your 2012 garden. If you're like me, an apartment dweller who lacks substantial backyard or porch space for planting, you may have considered signing up for one of Portland's 118 community garden plots. If so, you're outta luck (for now): the program is thriving and the waitlist for plots exceeds 100 names.

However, that's kind of good news, too. According to Moon, the high demand has spurred Portland officials to look into "seeing if there are additional [city-owned land] parcels that would be suitable for gardens that would accommodate that need."

In addition to the 118 plots at existing locations on Valley Street, Clark Street, North Street, and in Payson Park, there are three gardens run by neighborhood associations (in Deering Center, Riverton, and Peaks Island). Students at Casco Bay High School, Lincoln Middle School, and Longfellow Elementary School, among others, have also created community gardens on school grounds, with help from several educational and non-profit institutions as well as local volunteers. Cultivating Community, the Portland-based food project that promotes sustainable agriculture in urban settings, has its own garden on Boyd Street.

Now, as Portlanders look toward the future of city horticulture, we should think beyond traditional gardens, to how community agriculture initiatives can help address issues like food security and nutrition.

Consider this ambitious example from Seattle: Seven acre of a public park are being transformed into a municipal "food forest" with hundreds of edible plants whose fruits (and nuts, and veggies) will be up for grabs to people who wander through.

While the Seattle project presents its own questions — To whom does the food belong? Who is responsible for tending to the land? Are there food safety and liability issues? — it's also a bold take on urban agriculture.

When it comes to potential future sites in Portland, there are many, says Lisa Fernandes, director of the Portland-based Resilience Hub, which runs the Portland Maine Permaculture group. "I just drive down the street and I see food," she says. "The next wave of permaculture in Maine is how we apply these concepts in marginal or public spaces. We've barely scratched the surface."

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