Cultivating Enchantment at a Community Garden

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Bazile Booth

Late last October, I found myself among new and old friends, gleefully tossing shingles of horse manure off the tailgate of a heavy-duty pickup truck. We took turns switching between chiseling and shoveling out from the massive pile inside the truck bed, to raking and kicking the clumps on the ground level to distribute the rich black crust as evenly as possible within the borders of each 10-by-20- and 20-by-20-foot plot. For future vegetable crops to thrive in this loamy, sandy soil, these beds needed an infusion of organic matter, particularly in the newly tilled plots for the upcoming 2021 season.

The mood was light, the conversations sporadic and embroidered with snippets of people’s kinesthetic memories of farm life. People shared details of their grandparents’ ways of preparing the soil, and talked about their own farms that they downsized or sold before moving into town. Regardless of skill, experience or ability, folks honored the unspoken rule of what I’ve come to refer to as the Wisconsin work ethic: Keep your hands and feet as busy as your mouth. 

In a flash, I realized the common purpose we shared. By joining this community of fellow gardeners, I, too, sought to refresh my soul by conjuring food and beauty from the fertile Earth, witnessing the magical transformation of soil and seeds into plants. Gardening, the microcosm of farming, connects us to our ancestors and to our first teachers. We instantly recall early sensory imprints: the aroma of tomato leaves and marigolds, the scent of the soil itself in different seasons, temperatures and levels of humidity. I drifted into my own reverie…

Flashback: early spring, southern Israel, 1993. I’m trudging through moist sand, wearing ill-fitting canvas high-tops, sweating profusely through my t-shirt and jeans, accompanied by an international crew of kibbutz volunteers as we follow behind a slow-moving tractor pulling a flatbed trailer. Above us, the date palms make a shaded lattice along the labyrinthine paths of this desert orchard. Our supervisor, Shalom (actual name), orders us to keep hurling fallen palm fronds like javelins onto the flatbed. As we bend to pluck these out of the sand, piles of rotting dates, soaked in morning dew and camel urine, squish under our feet. And all the while, we joyously scream/sing date-centered parodies of “The Muppet Show” theme song, and look forward to our next coffee break where we’re offered Nescafe, Maria biscuits and … dates! 

By 2020 standards, last October’s manure-spreading meander, enriching square by square of a community garden, constituted a thrill ride. Digging in the dirt, side-by-side with others, has always been a joy, and the rigor and fellowship of that community workday felt downright medicinal. I didn’t care that I would be sore the next day, or that I would come home covered in a fine layer of grunge. Those problems are machine washable and/or treatable by a hot Epsom salt bath.

Unexpectedly, we encountered the patchwork paradise that is the River Valley Area Community Gardens. First, we spotted a cheerful red offering box near the edge of Westmor Street bearing free produce. Behind this display of generosity bloomed a dazzling backdrop of gayfeather, black-eyed Susan, echinacea and other native flora. 

Unwrapping the pandemic’s existential gifts like an advent calendar, by late autumn last year I was becoming adept at resetting my parameters for adventure. The springtime of 2020 took on an avian theme, finding me and my partner captivated by sandhill crane murmurations on the Platte River, co-constructing a chicken coop in the backyard under the direction of a talented friend, and trying our hands at duck butchering (see “Driftless Terroir: A Pilgrimage, Farm Chicks and a Live Muscovy Duck” in the June 2020 issue of Voice online for more details). Later that summer, we welcomed the comet NEOWISE for several days at a stretch, car camped in Nebraska under a storm that turned out to be on the edge of the derecho, and coincidentally crossed paths with a dear friend and former Driftless denizen not once but twice along Highway 80 in Utah.

Upon returning from our travels last August, my partner and I took a stroll toward the northwestern corner of the Village of Spring Green to reconnect with our town, watch the sun go down and likely to see if Culver’s was featuring my favorite flavor of frozen custard that day (coconut almond, now discontinued — but that doesn’t stop me from glancing at the marquee each time I pass by).

Unexpectedly, we encountered the patchwork paradise that is the River Valley Area Community Gardens. First, we spotted a cheerful red offering box near the edge of Westmor Street bearing free produce. Behind this display of generosity bloomed a dazzling backdrop of gayfeather, black-eyed Susan, echinacea and other native flora. The bright colors beckoned us into the maze of green beyond the white lattice fence. What imagination and joy! A children’s garden, with headboards as trellises in the “beds,” and a smiling plywood dragon weaving in and out. Aisles of sunflowers, cucumber hedges, intricate nasturtium tangles, flowering herbs and … What was up with this place? Was it associated with a church group? A school? Could we join?

We investigated, inquired and signed up for the 2021 season, our first and RVACG’s sixth in its current location (the garden was originally part of River Valley School District in 2009-15). Of particular importance to me: finding an auxiliary place to plant garlic. My backyard garlic reserve had exceeded its borders, and the chicken coop was not yet the font of fertilizer we needed it to be for our sandy soil. We’re still flabbergasted by the fact that we can rent a 20-by-20-foot plot for a nominal fee and be provided with access to compost, mulch, a tiller and tools to use, and easily accessible water.

Many of our neighbors at the garden also happen to live just a few blocks away from us in the village. There’s a pair of fellow sunset-watchers, ubiquitous volunteers for all things RVACG, who have built extraordinary raised beds planted in a square-foot gardening technique. Early in the growing season, one member of this couple showed me how to run the tiller, with a patience and thoroughness that took me back to my first driving lessons. He could see that I was struggling to break ground in the new raspberry patch, and took it upon himself to show me, rather than tell me, how to run this type of Honda (I’d only driven Civics).

If you visit the River Valley Area Community Gardens, you’ll likely be drawn in by the charming Leopold benches, painted by volunteers and decorated by the youngest members, known as the Busy Bees Garden Club. The Bees’ activities are completely volunteer-powered and dedicated to teaching children that growing food and flowers is their birthright as earthlings. As mentioned, the children’s garden is a centerpiece and not to be missed. You’ll also see an enabled garden, a plot made creatively accessible for gardeners with disabilities, and in the distance, a high tunnel bursting with tomato plants. Sunflowers will salute you at eye-level, and the hum of pollinators will remind you that we’re all in this together.

Behind the scenes of this enterprise is a dedicated board of directors, volunteers and a well-oiled fundraising machine. In addition, several of the garden plots are dedicated to raising produce specifically for the food pantry. If you’d like to get involved, and live in the River Valley School District area, please visit the gardens, observing the very few rules: enter on foot, use the mowed pathways, don’t step into individual plots, and don’t help yourself to what folks have growing. DO check and see if the food pantry boxes near the curbside have veggies in them. Often they do. And, of course, you may visit virtually via the website rvacg.org and the RVACG Facebook page.

Bazile Booth is a native of Boulder, Colorado. The fertile Driftless Region lured her successfully outside the bubble of Madison, where she trained as a clinical social worker. Natural medicines, including foraging, cooking, gardening and the art of fermentation are Bazile’s great passions.

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.