For the people of Muscatine, gardening has a much greater meaning than dirt and a few plants. Community gardens are a part of the Iowa Initiatives’ Blue Zones Project and aim to increase the availability of healthier food options, encourage Muscatine citizens to participate in more physical activity, and to unify the community (Taylor Park Community Garden). The most important aspect of this project is the community. While many of Blue Zones goals include physical benefits both to the neighborhoods and the people of Muscatine, our conversations with a Muscatine County Coordinator, Annette Shipley, indicated that the greater goal of the community gardens is to foster a sense of mutual pride in the town. This project will ideally provide a platform for the formation of communal bonds. These gardens are all over Muscatine. Some are large areas blocked off specifically for garden plots, while others are found in front and back yards throughout the community. Many of these garden spaces are free to use, and a few charge a small rental fee. In all cases- either free or for rent- if the soil is unfit for gardening, the coordinators work to create raised beds for better growth. Many of the gardens are personally volunteered by members of the community. For instance, Deb Brockhouse, the wife of a local farmer, offered her land for public use at a community gardens meeting after reading about its occurrence in the Muscatine Journal. All of this is done through donations and comes at no extra cost to the citizens of Muscatine who wish to participate. The coordinators of these gardens are not seeking profit; rather, all garden materials and seeds are given out freely to those who wish to participate. Community garden coordinator’s only request is that surplus goes to a food pantry that helps the lower income families make healthier eating choices. Instruction and tools are provided to both experienced and novice gardeners. Even locations such as the Evangelical Church encourage non parishioners to participate and use the space provided on church property to plant and create gardens. Additionally, schools such as East Campus have started their own gardening programs as well. Mr. Falkena’s Biology class has school gardens, performs experiments with irrigation techniques, and reaches out to the community to help others learn how to garden. The very simple task of gardening, with the involvement of students and the community, can help to create the unification the Blue Zones and Iowa Initiatives hope to achieve.
The daily activities in the gardens currently is in the planning stages, with planting approaching quickly. There is variability in the number of people signed up for each garden. This inevitably creates a rather inconsistent environment in which people work in the gardens. For more popular sites, such as East Campus, this entails daily support from a number of students. In contrast, Solomon Gardens has only a handful of people signed up to use the plots; thus the number of people working daily at the site is much fewer (Deb Brockhouse). Eventually, activities will primarily revolve around watering and nurturing plants, which will hopefully lead to the production of vegetables. This, of course, is the end goal and purpose of these gardens. When this phase is reached, there will likely be conclusions drawn about the effectiveness of the area surrounding the gardens.
By producing vegetables in the community, the Blue Zones Project hopes to aid others in taking a healthier approach in their daily eating habits. A simple process such as gardening can display the value of eating right to the youth involved in this project, specifically at East Campus (Annette Shipley). Both students and adults alike can grow their own food, and also try for themselves different vegetables that they may not have been inclined to eat before. Tasting all the products after months of work will present a clear benefit from the gardens. The gardeners who have worked for these vegetables will then take pride in the creation of new healthy foods for their families. The Blue Zones project would use this result to help explain the prolonged lives seen in the area as a result of healthy eating (Muscatine Blue Zones). A goal of the Blue Zones Project is to create and maintain a daily cycle for healthy attitudes, using the public space as a catalyst for this type of behavior. So far, it would appear that the program is on track to accomplish this goal, even though the community has never really revolved around the production of vegetables through agriculture.
Physical Description of Gardens
The gardens that we visited, the Solomon Gardens, were quite beautifully situated at the side of a rural road. Deb Brockhouse, whose family owns the land that she volunteered for use in the Blue Zones project, informed us that the land had been completely empty before an effort was made to convert the area into a garden. Since the gardens are directly adjacent to her land, all 12 garden plots are located within 20 yards of her farm. The plots are all cut squarely into 12 distinct sections surrounded by tall grass and shrubbery. Considering the plots are part of farmland that is used actively, the area is clean and devoid of trash or debris. The gardens themselves are actually quite plain, as if tacitly suggesting to the gardeners that they possess the ability to define this land. The gardens are empty canvases that only require the participation of the community to make them complete. All success will be a result of their hard work. All along Solomon road, there are other farms used for planting crops. Anyone driving down the road would notice the obvious commonalities between the farms: they are places that exist for the planting and harvesting of crops.
The East Campus gardens, another site we visited, were located in a more formal area. The actual beds themselves, situated on raised dirt platforms, were behind the school itself. These raised beds are five by ten foot rectangles, located right along side the school building in a way that they can directly receive sunlight. Across from these beds is a few long rows of previously harvested sweet corn and watermelons. Knowing that the totality of the area is dedicated to the act of gardening and cultivating vegetation, the willing gardeners are primed and become engaged in a mindset conducive to their goals.
History of the Sites
Because they were just recently created, there is not much history for the sites themselves, but for their surrounding landmarks. Some examples include: East Campus, Mulford Evangelical Free Church, Taylor Park, and the local Salvation Army. These locations are important because they serve as compromises to a more diverse community. The hope is that this project will help unite the community without concentrating on religion or race. Where there have been historically divisive lines in the community before, the Blue Zones Project hopes to dissolve these a bit. The Evangelical Church location serves as an example to draw in a more diverse group of people. Such as drawing in those who do not attend the church. This would ideally break the predetermined barriers in the community by establishing new groups through these gardens. Thus, a new group created from different religious backgrounds can be created through the interactions at the church garden.
Historically, Muscatine has been a producer of buttons, and has also had an extensive crop exportation throughout the years. A soil survey taken by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1914 notes the use of most corn production in Muscatine and surrounding areas for the use as feed for cattle and hogs in the area (Hawker 8). Another large production in the area of fruits is that of the Muscatine melons. Muscatine Island, just south of the town of Muscatine, has long been known for its production of melons. The aptly named town of Fruitland is home to the large trade outpost for these melons (Futrell 7). The soil around Muscatine is perfect for the production of these melons, and as such, there is a large local market (Welvaert). For a long time, Muscatine also developed the mass production of buttons, and massive fishing of clams for the buttons. This created an environment in which diversity in crops was unnecessary, as many jobs were available in clam fishing. The new addition of gardens in Muscatine will then allow for new fresh vegetables to be introduced into the community. With the new addition of public space for these gardens, it marks a time when Muscatine citizens can be brought together to grow things together once again.
Stories in the Community
The community is a very large part of the purpose of these gardens as we have stated previously; thus, it is crucial to get their perspective on the project and how they might aid in its development. Deb Brockhouse, a member of the Muscatine community, volunteered to be the garden coordinator for the Solomon Gardens. She became interested in the gardens through the newspaper and decided to attend a meeting. She was extremely excited and happy to get involved in any way possible, so she volunteered her land for a garden plot. Cindy Laughead, another member of the Muscatine community, is among those in the process of readying her garden for planting. She has volunteered to take over a plot in the Solomon Gardens location. We found her and her grandson, Jackson, tilling through the soil on a Friday afternoon. She was very excited and told us about how “nice and helpful” the Brockhouse family had been. They had provided the garden with a shed filled with tools for gardening, as well as a water well that they had put in directly next to the garden plots. Cindy plans on retiring shortly from her position as an Educator Facilitator for the Muscatine Area Education Agency. She explained to us that she once was an avid gardener; however, the space she used in her yard was not proper for gardening due to the lack of sunlight. She heard about the community gardens project and decided it would be a perfect opportunity to facilitate her hobby, and she was quite glad that she had.
Probably the most insightful community story was that of the East Campus students. They were initially involved in the community gardens project last year; however, although the gardens were pretty successful during the school year, once summer came, they went downhill due to lack of volunteers and participation. These students expressed their excitement for this year’s project. They explained what they would do differently in order to maintain these gardens and they have already put a lot of work into them before the planting has even begun. They see the garden’s main objective as providing fresh fruits and vegetables to people who may not be able to afford them. They also see the community aspect of the gardens as well, and they hope to unite both their peers and others who live near by. Each of the students agreed that the space was an important part in their curriculum as well as after school activities.
Assessment of Argument
The community gardens exist for a multitude of reasons, but none of them are without a primarily altruistic basis, at least as far as we can discern. The most readily apparent and explicitly advertised function of the gardens is to provide an alternate source of food for families whose diets are restricted based on their incomes. Sadly, there are many poorer areas in Muscatine that house low-income families who are more inclined to purchase fast food and food products prepared with low quality ingredients. This is especially true when the families have many children. The town is full of fast food places such as Taco Bell, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fact that many of these gardens are relatively cheap to invest in (between 15 and 40 dollars depending on the size of the plot per season) when they are not entirely free gives all families incentives to partake in the act of gardening and grow a low-cost and nutritionally beneficial source of food. Seeds are incredibly cheap and are dispersed through tiny packages. Annette even offered us several packs of carrots and tomato seeds when we met with her.
Another major component of the gardens’ purpose for existing is the changing of the youth’s mindset and attitude regarding healthier food. Obesity is a major problem among modern America’s youth. Unhealthy food being highly accessible is perhaps the largest factor contributing to this epidemic. Taylor Park, the garden most prominently featured on Muscatine’s official website, has plots that are free for the youth only. Also, the East Campus garden is planted and maintained exclusively by students nearby as a part of their school programs throughout the entire year, including summers. Through mandatory school integration and unrestricted facilitation of child involvement, the project coordinators are hoping to foster a sense of excitement for healthy food by way of the interactive and incredibly fun process of gardening. Annette tells us that it is the belief of the project coordinators that children and teens are more inclined to feel strong pride in something that they grow themselves. This applies to the youngest children most of all. Children who feel they are the catalyst for new life forming would desire to share in the glory that can only come from gardening. The argument posed by the program highlights the practicality of them simply eating the food that is produced, thus facilitating healthy behaviors.
Another major emphasis of the project is to provide the community with an opportunity to make their living space more aesthetically appealing and simply beautiful. Annette has told us that the project coordinators operate according to the philosophy that communities that look more visually impressive are more likely to inspire contentment and a sense of pride in the community. The natural and organic look of the gardens will simultaneously provide a cheap and easy way to beautify the surrounding communities and motivate Muscatine citizens to work hard to maintain the gardens. The only requirement, in fact, to involve oneself in the planting of the gardens is to commit to attending to them. For many families, the gardens are well within walking distance of their houses. This way, they can physically exert themselves in a healthy manner while harvesting food that is in accordance with this healthy lifestyle.
The final, and arguably most subtle and important, aspect of the gardens and all that they represent is the objective of uniting all social classes of the community under a common goal. Ideally, the alliances formed under the pretense of botanical and logistical discussions culminate in permanent communal bonds. According to Annette, there are somewhat frequent meetings that are held (for example, each Wednesday night) during which representatives from different neighborhoods and the community garden coordinators meet to discuss how to best promote local interest in the gardens along with the actual logistics of maintenance. People who live in communities with varying degrees of economic affluence are often in conflict for multiple reasons. The disparity between opportunities afforded to those who have wealth and those who do not will inevitably generate a social rift. This also means that different social classes will generally live in entirely separate geographic locations and will have very little cause, if any, to intermingle or interact. Physical separation and lack of any form of contact results in the formation of misconceptions. The Blue Zones project seeks to shatter these misconceptions and create reasons for different members of the community to interact when they otherwise never would. Also, the wealthier members of the community generously provide a great deal of the equipment necessary for gardening.
The project attempts to resolve a wide range of social and cultural issues, which is quite ambitious considering that gardening is the primary means of accomplishing this. While the intentions are laudable, and the motivations seemingly altruistic in nature, the community garden coordinators can certainly be seen as idealists. It may be that they are too optimistic and their ambitions are unrealistic, but as previously discussed, the head coordinator seems determined that success is within reach.
When it comes to sustaining a garden in general, there are many resources one needs to be successful- the most important of these being “healthy soil.” Currently, the space we have chosen to observe does not quite meet this basic need. Due to this year’s harsh Iowa winter, the ground is not quite ready for planting. According to Annette Shipley, a Community Gardens representative, “the ground needs to be about fifty-five degrees” before any planting can happen. However, with spring beginning and climates rising, the gardens will be planted on schedule with the season. We concluded, in fact, that due to the many locations of these gardens, from schools to neighborhoods around Muscatine, these gardens have been set up for success before any seeds have hit the dirt. Aside from other basic needs of a garden such as water, nutrients and sunlight, Annette informed us that the most important resource these gardens must incorporate before even beginning to think about these other needs- that is, garden coordinators. “In 2009”, Annette informed us, “two or three gardens existed.” Of these gardens, we know the Wesley MCSA and Salvation Gardens still exist today, but that was not always the case. When this project was first initiated about five years ago, they showed a lot of early signs of success, as they do now. However, this changed when the garden coordinators were no longer able to fulfill their part. “Some did not sustain”, she told us. Without the coordinator, the community drifted further and further from their earlier excitement and the gardens turned to weeds. The coordinator was important, not only because they were in charge and aided the community, but also because they represent the community. The community looked up to these coordinators. Thus, when they left the project, the entire vibe of community and unity that the gardens needed so greatly dissolved. The community cannot thrive unless those they rely on commit to them. Moreover, these gardens were a symbol of the community when they first began and now, too, as they commence again. This time, though, representatives such as Annette have learned from their past mistake. Before anything can start, Annette concluded, “the people must make a commitment!” That’s not to say that the failure of the initial gardens can be blamed completely on these coordinators. The community, more than anything, must commit as well. Annette described how the gardens turning to weeds affects the public. Their excitement and unity among them dies along with these gardens. This is why they are making sure the people are committed this time in order to grow and sustain the gardens in the community for what is hopefully a very long time.
The sustainability of these gardens really relates back to the community portion of their title. Of course with any project such as this, structure and coordinators are a necessity; however, the community needs to take ownership as well if the gardens are going to thrive, let alone sustain. There are always going to be some challenges and problems. Annette used the phrase, “They must fix it!”. In order to get the public excited and involved, the community garden representatives have to do a lot of marketing and public relations. Word-of-mouth is actually very crucial in the gardens’ start and sustainability because they need these people to garden them. They have also gone further in these attempts by holding open houses to market to the public, which have been helpful in their progress.
Getting back to the basics, there are still a lot of important resources that are crucial in the sustainability of these gardens. The representatives have to provide the community with “proper tools”, such as shovels, hoes, wheelbarrows, tillers, rakes, etc. Furthermore, they need to provide people with, as Annette put it, “soil-ready gardens” and “raised beds”. Most of these people are not gardeners and maybe have never had a garden in their lifetime. Thus, it is necessary to provide them with a place where they can do “the fun part” of the process such as planting the seeds, pulling weeds, watering and simply watching their own food grow before their eyes. By making the gardens something fun to do instead of a burden or a chore, they are able to incorporate a larger group of enthusiastic members.
A large part of the long-term sustainability of these gardens is getting the youth involved. Luckily, the representatives are doing just that. They have started incorporating children through gardening clubs at their schools and even opening a community garden called The East Campus Garden on the grounds of a high school in Muscatine as well. Annette informed us that there is a “group of schools gardens now committed to The Blue Zone Project” and are even trying to incorporate it into their school curriculum. This is important because the youth plays a large part in the future of these gardens, being that the older adults who are starting them now will not always be able to sustain them in the future. By getting youth excited and involved now, they can prepare for a type of community tradition that extends further down the road in Muscatine.
Overall, we found that this space proves to be appropriate because of the greater task at hand in Muscatine. Annette was more excited about bringing the community together than actually planting and gardening these spaces. Because these gardens are intended to break down barriers within the community as a whole, we concluded that they were well worth the use of the multiple spaces. Not only does the garden provide opportunity for the community to get involved with each other and feel a better connection, but it also serves the purpose of health promotion. Fresh food is not always easy to come by, especially in today’s economy. In Muscatine, there is a large separation between the wealthy and less financially stable members. The less financially stable members sometimes must revert to unhealthy food choices due to the lower prices. Unfortunately, this means that they are also deprived of the health benefits that come with fresh foods. Because many of these gardens are free and only require the commitment and enthusiasm of a family, the less wealthy member of the community have the opportunity to grow their own fresh food without the high prices. It also benefits the wealthier members in that they can integrate themselves in the gardens and lessen the social gap between the two parties as well. As far as we can see, the benefits of these gardens far outweigh the consequences, if any, because they are a fun way for people within Muscatine to grow not only better, fresh food choices, but also long lasting relationships.
Advocate for Change
Blue Zones has created many lofty goals through the community garden. Whether or not unification of Muscatine is achievable is up to the coordinators. They are the mentors on sight who can encourage communication and companionship, as well as provide an environment that invites the citizens of Muscatine back to the gardens. A community garden gives the members of the community, who would not otherwise interact, a platform for communication and bonding. A bonded community looks out for one another and is less likely to harm other members of the community because of the relationships formed between families and neighbors. However, creating a friendly and social environment means more than just people gathering at a large plot of dirt. If the coordinators truly wish to create community, they might go so far as organize events and inviting participants to join similar classes and learn about gardening together. It may be beneficial to have schedules for each gardener, in order for them to garden at the same time as another family. That way they can get to know each other better each time they come back to maintain their vegetables. Simply having the opportunity to garden will not create a cohesive community, but creating events and organizing occasions for the gardeners to interact can aid the process.
The donation of spaces for these gardens is also quite a large goal. While Muscatine has benefited greatly from the local government allowing them to create gardens in front yards and neighborhoods, not all members of the community may like seeing spaces of just dirt in their neighbors’ yards; to them, it may not be considered beautification of the neighborhood. Additionally, families have approached Annette with issues of transportation. Adding gardens to front yards and other public areas was one solution. However, in order to solve the problem of transportation, rather than have gardens in front yards or only in far off locations, the donation of unused land could be used to provide space for the neighborhood. In this way, travel would not be an issue, and any unused space would truly be beautified with the addition of gardens. While the community of Muscatine is on board for the community gardens project, everyone’s definition of “beautification” varies. It would benefit Muscatine to bring members of neighborhoods together and conduct meetings about the placement of the gardens to discuss who would be willing to donate some extra space. Through these meetings, members of the community are more involved in the planning process and are much more likely to participate in the neighborhood events as well as in the gardens themselves. Without participation and donation of space, community gardens will not become a part of Muscatine’s history.
Another eventual goal of the Blue Zones project is to create and hold an interest in gardens in the schools. Local schools are already incorporating gardens into class activities, but the addition of curriculum and club involvement would solidify gardens’ place in education. Eventually, the hope is for clubs to emerge specifically geared towards gardening. Hopefully as the gardens continue to grow, they will not only have involvement from the adult population, but will interest the youth enough to maintain clubs and keep their gardens for their own benefit rather than because of their parents. With increased youth involvement, Annette states, “the chance of a student trying a new vegetable increases because they have seen it grow and have grown the plant with their own hands.” With the incorporation of gardens in school, the youth of Muscatine are encouraged to eat healthier and participate in community building projects (like the community gardens). The younger generation showing an interest in gardening now, helps ensure the future of gardens and the continuation of projects to unify the community in the future.
In addition to building a community, we believe it is also important to use the gardens to preserve the historically famous fruit, the Muscatine Melon. Muscatine, according to Futrell, is “the perfect place for growing melons because of its sandy, well-drained soil.” Prime soil in Muscatine is a great reason to bring back the beloved fruit. With community gardens spread around Muscatine, there is opportunity for families to incorporate melons into their plots. Not only does the incorporation of Melons enhance the community garden effort, but also gives the community a platform to embrace farming culture.
The Blue Zone’s and Iowa Initiatives have started quite the community building project. With the participation of the schools, the community, and the comeback of the melon the community gardens can really make a mark in Muscatine and become a solid tradition for the city.
Brandy Welvaert. July 2009. A little slice of Muscatine: Melons grown and ripened in Iowa are in season. Retrieved from http://radishmagazine.com/stories/display.cgi?prcss=display&id=451101
Hawker, H.W. (1914). Soil Survey of Muscatine County, Iowa. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_MANUSCRIPTS/iowa/muscatineIA1914/muscatineIA1914.df
Susan Futrell. October 2004. Muscatine Melon: A Case Study of a Place-based Food in Iowa. Marketing and Food Systems Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/pubs-and-papers/2004-10-muscatine-melon-case-study-place-based-food-iowa.pdf
2011. Muscatine Blue Zones Project. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/MuscatineBlueZonesProject/info
2014. Taylor Park Community Garden. Retrieved from http://www.muscatineiowa.gov/DocumentCenter/View/10488.
Copyright © 2014 Zachary Stark, Noelle Alkhawaja, Dane Hanson and Grace Hach
Stark, Zachary; Alkhawaja, Noelle; Hanson, Dane; and Hach, Grace, "Gardens" (2014). Iowa Narratives Project. 50.