Planting for the Future
A ‘Hamlet’ Takes Root in Lincoln
by Tim Rinne
NFP State Coordinator
It wasn’t until the personal implications of climate change began to dawn on me—how it would disrupt my daily routine and the world I took for granted—that the full horror of our situation finally sunk in.
I’d already been fuming over the perils of global warming and our dependence on fossil fuels for a decade by then, prevailing on my friends about my concerns, pondering whether I ought to move my family north to a rainier climate. In my anxiety about needing to do something to avert this coming calamity, I’d gotten myself elected to the Executive Committee of the Nebraska Sierra Club and was chairing its Political and Legislative Committee. As NFP’s State Coordinator, I’d made sure Nebraskans for Peace was doing its part as well, ‘connecting the dots’ between climate disruption and social conflict (such as we’re already seeing in Africa with the wars over water and food). Humanity, Al Gore warned in his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, had begun to “wage war on the Earth,” which only confirmed in my mind that you couldn’t find a more foundational ‘peace issue’ than climate change—because if we don’t have a habitable place to live, all other peace and justice concerns become moot.
For a full ten years, I’d been obsessing about the climate threat on an intellectual, theoretical level. And then, suddenly, in early 2009, it hit me.
Right in the stomach.
I didn’t have the first clue about my food supply. Where it came from and how it was grown.
Now, I’m a fifth-generation Nebraskan, whose immigrant ancestors homesteaded in the state in 1868. Both my parents were farm kids who grew up in homes without electricity or running water. But I’ve lived in towns and cities my entire life and had no idea how chickens laid the eggs I ate, the wheat for my bread got planted, harvested and milled, or one preserved the surplus so that there’s something in the larder to eat during the winter. Like that glib consumer adage goes: I was doing all my ‘hunting and fishing’ at the supermarket—letting someone else worry about my food supply. My paltry 10 x 20-foot garden patch where I grew my spindly Roma tomatoes didn’t count.
Here we were as a nation: facing ‘peak oil’ (that tipping point where the available supply of this finite fuel is diminishing even as global demand rises); risking ‘runaway climate change’ with our addiction to said oil and coal; slashing government services for the many (including nutritional programs for the young, the poor and the unemployed) to favor the rich; all the while skirting the edges of an international economic meltdown that will pop the bubble of our consumer lifestyle…
And here I was: in my 50s; totally reliant on someone else to stock my refrigerator and provide for my daily sustenance; spending what time I did spend outside in the yard mowing my inedible lawn and tending my inedible ornamentals; devoid of practical skills and totally ignorant of how to go about feeding myself and my family (as, I was soon to discover, was also true for virtually all of my urban friends and neighbors).
Now, I ask you, doesn’t this sound like a formula for disaster?
Isn’t this a way of life that’s just asking for trouble?
But what was to be done?
Inklings of a Plan
Although I’d toyed with the idea for years, buying some land and moving to the country wasn’t a viable option. Both my wife Kay and I worked in downtown Lincoln, less than a mile from our home, and we concluded that the carbon footprint of commuting back and forth every day would only compound our ecological woes. Besides, as I indicated, I don’t have the skill set to run an acreage. I’m not mechanical and am the furthest thing from a handyman.
About this time, however, a close friend of ours—NFP State Board member Linda Ruchala, who shared our global warming anxieties—happened upon a workshop on ‘Co-housing and Intentional Communities’ at a Unitarian Universalist conference. Linda was smitten with the idea of a group of like-minded people choosing to live in close proximity to each other in order to share resources and lessen our load on the planet. After looking at some directions taken by co-housing projects and talking the idea over with us, the idea of ‘re-purposing’ an older neighborhood like the one we live in seemed the most sensible course. So, Linda sold her home in south Lincoln and moved into our block, just one door down.
Suddenly, we’d doubled our numbers. A seed was taking root.
Then Kay and I decided to mortgage our home to purchase and renovate a ‘problem property’ on the block four doors away from us, with the idea of establishing a neighborhood garden there (as soon as the lease for the existing tenants was up). Our property stake in the block—for this co-housing project—increased again, this time by a third, though we didn’t yet have any clear vision of what it was we could actually do.
Somewhere in my browsings, though, I’d stumbled across the concept of ‘edible landscaping’ and discovered a book on the subject by the same name. At one point in the text, the author, Rosalind Creasy, posed a question that was to forever change Kay’s and my life (not to mention our lawn and yard). “Why,” she asked, “do we always plant things we can’t eat?”
I thought of my considerable corner lot. For 22 years, I’d dutifully mowed my grass (though never watered or fertilized it, because that just makes it grow again) and meticulously tended my trees and bushes—not one of which produced edible fruits or berries. In my entire yard, apart from my little tomato plot, there wasn’t a single food plant. And “Why?” I wondered. Peach and cherry trees produce blossoms that are every bit as lovely as those of ornamentals—and you get something to eat besides. Strawberry beds make a lovely ground cover, and the berries provide a delightful enticement to everyone who walks by.
A fiendishly diabolical plan began forming in my mind.
Our home, I vowed, was going to become a lawn-free edible landscape—even the public right-of-way area, what city ordinance calls the ‘sidewalk space.’ Kay and I would create of model of what a food-producing urban lot could look like that other people (once they saw it and got over the shock) could emulate and adapt for their own properties. Nobody has to move to the country—and most of us can’t, anyway. We can stay right where we’re at, and turn that prime agricultural land that’s currently being squandered on grass into edibles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Making of an Urban Gardener
That first gardening season in 2009, half of my lawn got spaded under and planted in vegetables, with the remainder falling to the spade the following year. But I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. Terms like ‘Blossom End Rot,’ ‘Powdery Mildew’ and the pernicious and to-be-feared ‘Mexican Bean Beetle’ soon had me beating a path to Earl May Nursery for advice on pests and diseases. What I really needed though, Kay wisely counseled, if I seriously intended to garden on this domestic scale, was a “Master Gardener” course of study through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension Service.
So I promptly enrolled and learned more in the first four months of 2010 than I’d absorbed in my previous 30 years as a homeowner. I even passed the final exam (though it was, admittedly, ‘open book’ and ‘open neighbor’)—duly earning my Master Gardener certification. (And I have not only the certificate, but the badge and the T-shirt to prove it!) The class, though, was so monumentally informative for a mere English Major like myself, that I’d benefit from taking it all over again. As I tell people, if I qualify as a ‘Master Gardener,’ with the little knowledge and experience I’ve got, ain’t none of us gonna leave the table with a full stomach. I need lots more guidance and practice before I flaunt my badge and wear my T-shirt in public.
While Kay and I were developing our edible landscape, Linda and her husband Ed Long were remodeling their new home and hadn’t had time yet to sort out what they were going to do with their yard. But anxious to try her luck at gardening, she and another neighbor obtained permission to develop a community garden space in the empty backyard of yet another neglected property, adjacent to the one Kay and I had bought. The soil was awful—mostly fill dirt composed of clay and rubble. But Linda was hooked, gardening had gotten into her blood, and by the following year had converted the entire backyard of her home property to garden, complete with a couple of fruit trees and berry beds.
When our tenants finally moved out and we were able to take possession of our problem property, Kay, Linda and I set to work turning that entire space (frontyard and backyard both) into a permanent vegetable garden and orchard for the neighbors in the block. We brought in black topsoil to replace the graveled parking lot that covered most of the backyard, and dug garden beds two feet deep surrounded by wood chip paths. When our curious neighbors saw me setting out 150 strawberry plants that first year, to a person, they asked what I thought I was going to do with all those berries. “Am I the only person on this block who likes strawberries?” I remember replying. And not a single neighbor, I might add, refused the three quarts we distributed equally among the participating households earlier this spring.
Then, last summer, as we hoped would happen, the problem property used for the original community garden came available and Linda and Ed were able to acquire the property, adding a fourth lot to our co-housing project. They are now embarked on the same grueling renovation process of the house that Kay and I went through on our property. But the backyard of Linda and Ed’s has already been integrated into the neighborhood garden, and today we’ve got 25 fruit and nut trees growing in the neighborhood orchard, with four grape arbors and six berry patches.
And, like magic, the transformation we are effecting on our properties is spreading to the rest of the block. The only remaining investor owner has not only been inspired to rebuild the front porch and side the house of his rental property, he offered us a sizable chunk of his backyard for more growing space. Two more owner occupants across the alley, whose health conditions prohibit their getting out in the soil to garden, spontaneously offered us access to their backyards as well. So, for the use of their properties, the rest of us are sharing the surplus vegetables and fruits we’re growing in our own plots.
Modeling for the Community
All told, 18 different families from our block and across the street are now participating in our half-acre-sized neighborhood garden. Everyone has their individual vegetable plot; we jointly share the fruit harvest from the neighborhood orchard; and in the three ‘donated’ backyards, we’ve established a corn patch, bean patch and potato patch that we’ll annually rotate—with the harvest shared equally among the neighbors. A half-acre-plus garden in one city block may sound like a lot, but as we all tend to eat three meals a day and the so-called ‘calorie crops’ of corn, beans and potatoes take up a lot of space to grow, we’re always on the look-out for more ground. So, we’re also encouraging our gardening neighbors to think about spading up some of their own lawn to grow food there as well.
For instance, Kay’s and my next door neighbor, Barrie, has consented to put a couple of fruit trees on his property that will count towards the neighborhood orchard. Although he stipulated that one of them be an apricot, I knew he’d be an ‘easy sell’ on the fruit trees, because I’d already convinced him to help me keep chickens. Since May 2011, Barrie, his boarder Pat and I have been the proud papas of four absolutely adorable Rhode Island Reds: “Billina” (aka “the little stinker”), “Ruby” (the noble leader of the roost), and “The Twindles, Flopsy and Mopsy” (who I can’t tell apart, but whose combs both flop over). They’re all molting right now, poor things, but, like clockwork, they each faithfully provide an egg every 30 hours, which keeps both of our households amply supplied.
And thanks to Linda, I’ve lightened up a bit on my gardening expectations. When we first launched the co-housing gardening project, I was pretty hardcore about everyone growing food. Flowers were frowned upon, as we needed that ground for edibles. But then Linda got me interested in bees (we’re actually taking a class on bee-keeping through Southeast Community College) and I quickly realized how critical flowers are to our bee friends. “Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food,” the United Nations reports, “over 70 are pollinated by bees.” And with “Colony Collapse Disorder” still devastating hives around the world, anything we can do to aid and encourage our bee sisters and brothers—including growing flowers to provide them nectar—is a good thing. Linda and I set up our first hive in April, and so far things appear to be going well. The bees are building up their stores of honey and seem to like all the forage we’ve provided for them—particularly the clover we’ve planted as a cover crop wherever it’s too shady or there are too many tree roots to grow food or flowers.
Kay and I also have been concentrating on turning our hundred-and-five-year-old house (as well as our yard) into a ‘green’ residence that can serve as a model for others. In 2009, we installed a geo-thermal heating and cooling system in the house (the first such older home in Lincoln to be so retrofitted) and saw our utility bills drop by 60 percent. And just last month, we installed roof-top solar panels on our home (also the first such older home in Lincoln to be so retrofitted), which will just about reduce our net energy dependence on the Lincoln Electric System to zero. We’ve also insulated our walls, installed energy efficient lighting and low-flush toilets throughout the house, and have rain barrels on every downspout to collect water (that is, if it should rain again in this globally warmed world we’ve created here in the Great Plains). A battery to store the energy from our roof-top solar panels is next on our home improvement list, followed by the installation of a ‘grey water’ system to recycle our bath, dishes and laundry water.
But what we’ve enjoyed most of all the ‘green’ improvements we’ve made to our property is the attached ‘conservatory’ (we call it ‘the greenhouse’) we’ve added to our home. We live in a historic district, so we wanted to ensure that we built something that was compatible with the architecture of the neighborhood. In my gardening reading, however, I’d come across the works of Eliot Coleman—an organic farmer in Maine who gardens there year round in unheated greenhouses—and wondered if we could do something similar here in Nebraska. So by design, our conservatory has a dirt floor with no heat source other than the sun. After two winters of gardening in our unheated conservatory, I can personally attest that it is indeed possible to grow cool weather crops like lettuce and spinach, scallions, radishes and carrots throughout the winter months. Fresh greens make a welcome addition to the table in the dead of winter. But as most people aren’t in a position to add a greenhouse to their home, we’ve also erected a simple 15 x 30-foot ‘hoop house’ in the neighborhood garden that cost us less than $1,000 in materials. With just transparent plastic sheeting for a cover, we’ll be able to grow salad greens for the neighbors in the block long after the first frost has ended the gardening season outside.
For the first couple years, we’d described what we were creating as a ‘village’: working with our next door neighbors to grow food for our tables right in our own block. But a ‘village’ always sounded a bit presumptuous to me. What we were doing seemed a notch down from something as glamorous as a village. So on a whim, I went on the internet and googled ‘hamlet.’ A hamlet, I discovered on Wikipedia, is too small to have a church like a village does, but it might have a mill. That definition sounded right on target. We’ll never have a church on our block, but someday soon we might well mill some of the meal corn were growing to make cornbread, polenta and tortillas. Living as we do in the “Hawley Historic District” just a mile from downtown, we now accordingly refer to our block and the homes right across the street from us as the “Hawley Hamlet.”
Everything I’ve described here we’ve done on our own—without government assistance. It’s a self-initiated, self-supported project and it’s our goal to have hamlets just like ours springing up all over Nebraska’s capital. Of course every other hamlet will have its own unique identity as no two blocks are alike. But the features that make this hamlet concept so attractive in an urban setting can be replicated everywhere: building bonds with your neighbors as you collaboratively grow food, make optimal use of our local resources and, thereby, lighten our footprint on our overstrained ecosystem.
And gardening, I can tell you, is a veritable magnet for meeting your neighbors. In 30 years of political organizing, I’ve never seen anything break down barriers and foster dialogue like growing food (particularly in the public sidewalk space—where everybody can see what you’re doing when they walk by). In the first 22 years that Kay and I lived in our block, we knew maybe one or two of our neighbors by name. Today, after just three years of working to build the hamlet, there are no strangers. We know everybody. And we need to, because with the challenges climate change is foisting on our communities, we’re going to need the help of our neighbors like never before. We’re simply not going to make it trying to go it alone.
For a Peace & Justice organization like NFP, it’s critical that we continue to ‘connect the dots’ on the human role in global warming and lobby for policies that will enable us to mitigate the very worst scenarios. But some things about climate change it’s already too late to reverse. The damage is already done and we’re just going to have to live with it—like the long bouts of drought with blazing hot temperatures, broken only by an infrequent trace of taunting rain or destructive cloudburst that brings more moisture than we need or can handle.
So it’s going to be up to activists like ourselves to model for our neighbors how we can begin adapting to the changes that are already occurring—starting with our own properties and the blocks we live on.
And the place where it all begins, fittingly enough, is in the garden.