Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, Joseph McAlpine, Impolitikal, Portland community gardens

LISTEN | Leslie Pohl-Kosbau on community gardening in Portland

Being able to grow your own food, or at least knowing where the food you buy comes from, is becoming increasingly important to people all over the world. Leslie Pohl-Kosbau helped to found the Community Gardens for Portland Parks and Recreation program in Portland (US), where growing food in community gardens has long been a popular pursuit. She holds a BFA in printmaking and an associate’s degree in horticulture, and is co-chair of Friends of Portland Community Gardens. For the past 30 years the group has been the local support network for fostering local growing. Joseph visited Leslie at Fulton Park Community Garden to find out what it takes to start a communal garden, whether you’re a novice or a pro.

There is quite a serious community gardening movement happening in Portland now. How many community run produce generating gardens are there in the Portland area?
At least within the city there are 50. We started with three and worked up every year and tried to add one.

When you say started? When was that?
1975. I think by 2011, when I retired we had at least 40. There were all these on the drawing board and they’ve filled in the last couple of years. Sometimes people look at gardens as open space, vacant land, which of course you and I know isn’t vacant. People are out here today working in their garden. Hear all the birds out here, it’s a wonderful green space. There are plenty of insects, pollinators. That’s one of the things I love, is that my asparagus affords all kinds of opportunities for bees.

You just described the path of growth in community gardening as being relatively steady. Have you witnessed – perhaps in other parts of the community, not necessarily the public space – growth has accelerated somewhat of the recent years?
There are waves of acceleration. We have a pretty active food community in Portland, as a lot of other cities do. That has accelerated because people want to grow their own food. For example, I can’t buy those French fingerling potatoes in the store but I can grow them and eat them. It’s fresh, it doesn’t sit on a shelf for a long time. These are things we’ve promoted that we’ve known about. But a lot more awareness is out there. Which is great, because I see people of all ages and there has always been people of all ages doing community gardening. I see a lot of younger people coming into it, which I’m really excited about because I think it’s a wonderful way of life. I just live two blocks from here. If you can have a garden within walking distance of every person in the city then it’s great. The only problem is, in some areas there are more people that want to garden than there is space for. That isn’t necessarily so in some other neighborhoods where there is less of a desire to garden. It’s not even. It’s episodic.

I used to be on the board of the American Gardening Association and everyone has seen a rapid rise of community gardens across the country. It’s not just for wartime, it’s for peacetime. Which is wonderful. It’s also about food security – that hasn’t been talked about for while. There was a time when there was a lot of concern around the millennial, around 2000. People said, Well what do we do if the clocks stop and we don’t have any food? That kind of thing. Well there is some truth in that. When 9/11 happened my friends in New York City said that the stores in New York emptied out right away and that the community gardens were a source of food for people. We’re only a few days away from the stores not being open if a big earthquake happens, or something like that. To grown food in your yard or in a community garden is also about food security. It isn’t going to do everything but it’s going to help.

I know community gardening, part of it, is about the community coming together and growing food for themselves. Is some of the produce created in the gardens in Portland being provided to those who are struggling, or hungry families? How is this happening?
Absolutely, not everybody can garden because they may be doing two jobs or have five children or something like that. They just don’t have the time. We donate, in all the community gardens in the city, a portion to what we call Produce for People. It’s the donation program that we do. Every garden is encouraged to donate to their local food pantry. It’s really important. Last year, I think out of all the Portland community gardens there was a total of 40,000 pounds of fresh produce that went to the food pantries. That program has grown a lot. There are lots of people who are willing to share and that’s the beauty of it, we help each other out.

Can you tell me a little about the Growing Gardens program for limited income households?
Well Growing Gardens, I’m not sure, I think it’s about 20 years old. I think that’s right. It’s not my organization that I belong to but I can describe it. They grow food in people’s backyards. Get them set up to grow their own food in their backyards. A lot of people are renters or low-income people that maybe can’t afford a community garden space. These plots, 20-by-20 plots, are USD 100 a year. I think that’s steep but that’s me. People might not think that’s steep. It can be difficult. There are scholarships for these people, for low-income households. Growing Gardens is actually trying to promote people growing gardens in their own yards, if they have them.

There is a  Food Not Lawns initiative here too. How do people with free yard space connect with others to collaborate in creating a garden? 
I’m not sure how that program is going but that’s a web-based connector. They have little symbols for people who have space and ones for people who want space and then they just connect up themselves. There isn’t too much of a middle person, except for that web page. I’m assuming that’s going all right. There is another new device that I’ve just joined and it’s called Next Door. It’s a platform that allows you to post things. A person invites another neighbor and they get in this community online. I’ve posted a few things. I’ve responded to things. Somebody wanted to know who would cut their trees. So there was this whole conversation about who were the arborists recommended. Why use an arborist and all that sort of thing. Those things are helping us build community and I like that.

So, I can hardly keep a pot plant alive. 
Do you mean a marijuana plant or a plant in a pot?

Any kind of plant. Pot, weed or otherwise. So I do understand that it takes consistent care to keep plants alive. What kind of people are involved in the labour force keeping these gardens running?
Well in the garden themselves a person leases or rents the garden space. With that comes a requirement to do six hours a year of volunteering. Such as, we maintain the pathways and somebody mows around the trees. Somebody else works in the Produce for People garden. There are all kinds of different jobs that keep the thing going. I have a young guy next to me and he said, Hey your garden looks pretty good. So I said, Well I have a little more time so I can take care of it now. He was talking about how he had a bunch of slugs and he put too much lettuce in and next year he’s going to put less lettuce in. He’s learning. Of course nature can kibosh your whole plans. Like you said, you need to know how to grow things. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much effort you put in when you have a crop failure. It’s really great getting gardeners to understand that, because when they go to their supermarket or local farmers’ market and there’s not something there that they want, they can realize that maybe there was a crop failure. It just isn’t available because it’s the wrong time of year. To know what local food really means.

That’s good because what I just described before – getting it right – I can just visualize myself or someone like me starting a garden, not doing a very good job and being despondent.
Well my advice always, when I was doing the city community garden program, to people was, Start small and keep at it. Do it every week. Put it in to your lifestyle. If it’s not going to fit into your lifestyle then it’s not going to work for you. It has to be a consistent thing. You can’t just go away and leave it because the weeds grow. Especially in this drought we’ve been having – you really need to keep on your watering because plants really need their water.

If somebody wanted to set up a community garden here in Portland, what are the key steps they would need to follow to try and undertake that?
It’s really important to check the property, check the neighborhood. It needs to be something that everybody wants, not something somebody forced down somebody’s throat. For example the garden we’re working on right now, it’s offered by a church. They want it. There’s a big low-income housing development right next to it. The neighborhood needs it because all the gardens around here are filled. Its not going to be a big garden but it will help. We went to the neighborhood association and talked to them first, after talking with the church. I would characterize Portland Community Gardens as help maids. We all believe in the mission of community gardens. It’s not necessarily going to benefit us personally but we want to make sure people have more and have the opportunity.

Going to the neighborhood is incredibly important. Checking with the city to see if they would take it on or some organization that would take it on and make it sustainable. The key is to make it an ongoing, sustainable project rather than just be a one- or two-year thing.

Just as a ballpark, as an indication, if someone was to set up a community garden, obviously that requires significant money investment. What kind of money would someone be looking at? 
I hate to tell you what kind of shoestring we’re operating on. It’s very little. If I were doing it in my former job I would have to have more resources because of the requirements to do it. Paying contractors to do it. Most community gardens cost about USD 50,000, as an average. Some a little less, some a little more. We’re trying to put this community garden in for under USD 20,000. I’m hoping we can do this. We’ve done a lot of the labor ourselves. The irrigation has to be professional and often the fencing has to be professional. All the shoveling, grading and that kind of thing you can do with volunteers.

What kind of organizations would help communities set up a garden?
That’s a good question. Over the years we’ve had all kinds of partners. We’ve had businesses, we’ve written grants. Local grants, sometimes national grants. Right now we’ve got a neighborhood grant for this garden but that won’t fulfil the whole project. So we’re looking at a service organization, such as Rotary. We’ve applied to some other granting organizations, some of which we haven’t gotten.

There are different models of managing a community garden. Say, allotments versus communal arrangements. Could you describe these basic forms?
The allotments or plots are generally self-run within a garden. We have 20-by-20 plots here. I’m not sure how many centimeters or meters that would be, excuse me. Also some 10-by-20s and some 10-by-10s. Generally people who start and are successful want a full garden plot, which is a 20-by-20. There is an urban collective, which is an interesting concept. They trade, they don’t sell their produce. They trade it for hours people work. I find that an interesting one. People come out and volunteer and get so many chits for the hours that they did. They’ve got a pretty successful model. But it’s in certain neighborhoods and certain young people who like that, who like to do it together. It’s not for everybody but I think it’s an interesting model.

Some people don’t have the time or inclination to be involved in gardening themselves. How can people in Portland still contribute to sustainable food production?
Well another friend of mine does backyard gardening for people. In other words they are employed – her and her partner will do all the gardening work for the homeowner and get paid to do that and even harvest it. Basically, the land is provided and the person hires them to do it. So they have fresh produce but they don’t do the work.

They can say, The vegies came out of my garden.
But they didn’t do it.

They might not add that in.
Exactly. I think it’s also another model, you know. I mean why not? The less grass the better. Grass is good for some things. For sports, picnicking and croquet. But otherwise most people… Food not Lawns is really typical of the sentiment, that we really don’t need a lot of front yard lawns.

Thanks so much for speaking with me Leslie. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you and learning a whole bunch about gardening in Portland.
Well thank you for asking. We just want to make sure that gardens go on forever and that we have something beautiful to see and do and smell and make it liveable in a city.


Joseph McAlpine is a media producer based in New Zealand. Find him on tumblrRead more by Joseph.

Leslie Pohl-Kosbau is co-chair of Friends of Portland Community Gardens.