Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Growing Food and Self-Sustainable Citizens: An Update from the Cooperative Permaculture Garden

by Mary Beth Schwartzwalder

In back of Nottingham High School, right outside of the Technology Lab where students study robotics during the school year, are three beds that house lentils, jalapeƱos, and pumpkins. These are the beginnings of the Cooperative Permaculture Garden created by Reina Aparez, an alum from Nottingham, and now former students, Symone Campbell and Sterling Lowry. You will remember Reina from her presentation at Salt City DISHES this past May, where she introduced the Cooperative Permaculture Garden and ultimately won the micro-grant to begin the project. The garden will serve the Nottingham community as a hands-on learning site for healthy skills and the sciences. It will also help feed students and family members in need.  So far, Reina, and her student volunteers, are growing zucchini, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, lentils, jalapeƱos, bell peppers, pumpkins, parsley, and chives. Eventually summer annual plants will be phased out and fall plants will be added.
Gardening is still relatively new for Reina. While a student at Nottingham she explains, “I didn’t really have any exposure to it.” It wasn’t until she attended Hobart and William Smith College and got wrapped-up in the farm-to-table movement that she began thinking about food and where it comes from. Once she was done with school, she moved back to Syracuse and began working at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op. She eventually enrolled in the Community Training and Ecological Design class taught by the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and Alchemical Nursery. She learned more about gardening and sustainability and eventually she created the proposal for the Cooperative Permaculture Garden. “I’ve always been interested in community works,” Reina explains, and the garden was a way to combine her passion for the community with her love of fresh, homegrown food.
Still, Reina is the first to admit that she’s not an expert. The staff, teachers, and students at Nottingham are incredible sources of knowledge and have gone out of their way to help. Some have put together plans for a seed donation program. Others have helped by recruiting student volunteers to help with planting and maintenance. Some of the students have experience with gardening in the United States and in their home countries. Mr. Roberts, Head Custodian, has helped Reina plan out the landscape of the garden so that it does not interfere with the day-to-day needs of the school and warned her about animals in the area. “He knows the deer haven’t come this far into the property. He recommended planting lilies to help keep them out,” Reina explains, adding to her student volunteers busy planting pumpkins, “Get to know Mr. Roberts. He’s the one that knows all about this school.”
There are plans to expand the garden eventually and Reina is busy negotiating with the district to find out exactly what she can and can’t do. She’d like to build sub-irrigation planters to be able to grow annuals that can be rotated out quickly, but she may have to resort to simple lumber beds. Once the food is ready to harvest, items will be distributed among the student volunteers and, once the school year resumes, to different classes, as well. Some of the plants and much of the compost has been donated, but funds from the micro-grant will be used to purchase other plants (for example, maybe some seaberry bushes) and the materials needed for more beds and possible fencing. 
Reina hopes that the garden will give students “experience for the future,” that the work will help mold them into hardworking individuals with knowledge about growing their own food. “This is the best way to empower them to live a sustainable life,” she proclaims, “to eat things that aren’t expensive and are good for you.” One of the volunteers, Laxuman Sanyasi, who will be entering the 10th grade next year, smiles when he describes the work as “interesting” and says he’s most excited to eat the “broccoli, tomatoes, and hot peppers.” Syracuse seems to understand this excitement, too. Many restaurants, cafes, and food trucks are using local produce when possible. Individuals are starting gardens in their backyard and attending farmers markets. “It’s not hard to see that more people know someone who is a farmer these days,” she explains, making the world feel both wonderfully plentiful and small. The student volunteers, however, are no longer listening to how the world has grown. They’re engrossed in directing the wheelbarrow brimming with soil, bearing large shovels, and preparing the soil for seedlings that will eventually grow into brilliant, substantial pumpkins.