Wednesday, July 29, 2009

For variety's sake, here's a picture I took over the weekend. I am continually awed by the landscape out here and the sheer vastness of everything. Though it's sometimes too hot for my liking and much drier than I am used to, I still think the landscape is fascinating and beautiful.
Yesterday while at work, I started thinking about the kinds of things people might like to do in their gardens. And I thought... bees! Some friends of my family keep bees in their backyard, in the middle of my home town, and they were telling me some about them. I am no expert, obviously, but as far as "pets" go it sounds like you set the bees up initially and they pretty much take care of themselves. They're also very, very good for the neighborhood because of... pollination! A story I came across yesterday (the location since lost in a flood of information) talked about an apple tree in someone's backyard. It produced a very small amount of apples, but once either that family or the neighbors started having bees in the backyard, the apple crop increased exponentially.
As for people who would be interested in having bees, I found some resources. Gobeekeeping has free online classes, a coloring book (which I thought was fun... my sparse cubicle wall could use some decoration), and various other resources on its website. This website on backyard beekeeping is more geared towards someone living in a city environment, and has a lot of useful tips. For instance, if you "smoke" the bees, they are convinced there's a forest fire. So they rush back to their hive, gorge on honey (to save it, presumably), and once they are full of that liquid gold they are much more docile. And apparently, honey bees are often mixed up with yellow jackets, the bees that sting more often. I remember when I worked on the farm and the cucumbers, zucchini, and squash were blossoming. There were bees absolutely everywhere pollinating like crazy, and even though I had to essentially stick my face in this swarm day after day, I was never stung. Fun fact! I also thought it was interesting that I couldn't find a comprehensive Beekeeper's Association for southern Idaho.
My animal research naturally extended to chickens. It turns out that in the city of Boise, you can have up to three "pet" hens but no roosters in your yard (except in restricted neighborhoods). I think that's really interesting. I found this information at The City Chicken, not a city of Boise website, so it may not be entirely accurate. But if it is, I was very interested to read that in Minneapolis, the number of chickens you can have is unlimited, as long as they are penned and you have permission from 80 percent of your neighbors (This information is on the chicken laws page, and it has laws from all over the country).
Then, when searching how to build a cheap greenhouse, I stumbled across Instructables, an amazing website commited to the Do-It-Yourself philosophy. I promptly signed up for a free account and have been spending much too much time searching it for ideas to make stuff. On the subject of chickens I found a page that instructs you how to build a backyard chicken coop and how to clip chickens' wings. There were so many more, but I had to limit myself and stay on task :) When I dealt with chickens on the farm last summer, I was generally afraid of them... but there's really no reason to be. Whenever they saw me coming, they would crouch down and spread their wings out. I think they're generally pretty terrified of... everything. When I managed to collect my first egg, I felt like I was on top of the world. It took almost all of the courage I had to physically reach under that hen and make off with her egg.
And, I did find a solution for a cheap greenhouse on Instructables here. It's very small, but it's very cheap! With the cost of it you could make a lot of small ones!
I was also very delighted to discover in this Instructables that the Starbucks policy of giving away their coffee grounds for fertilizer is universal. I was under the impression it was only in Boise, but according to this you can go to any Starbucks and simply ask for it.
In my research I've been focusing heavily on the cheap, easy side of things. If I had to guess, I would assume most people who will (hopefully) be wanting to start community gardens next season won't have a lot of resources at their disposal. And as a branch of a non-profit organization either do we. That part of the starving college student mentality may serve me well this coming year!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Water, Water in my Sink, but I don't have a Drop to Drink

One major difference between my native Minnesota and Idaho is the issue of water. Generally, back home, we can just plant some things and nature will run its course, with the occasional sprinkling. But in Idaho, we are in the middle of a desert-like area. Maybe it is considered an actual desert; as an out-of-stater, I am no expert on the subject.
Water is something that community gardeners will really have to worry about. Since we clearly can't rely on rainfall, we have to figure out some sort of irrigation. As of now this is still something I know very little about... but my research today, mainly water-focused, has given me a few ideas. Hopefully they are in the right direction.
First, I came across the terms "greywater" and "blackwater". Greywater, according to the UMass Extension, is defined as "all the non-toilet wastewater produced in the average household including the water from bathtubs, showers, sinks, washing machines, and dishwashers". Blackwater is essentially the rest of it; water from toilets, with waste in it, etc. The good news and potentially useful tip for us here in Idaho is the possibility of recycling greywater and using it to water plants. There are some precautionary measures to be taken, however. At this website, they instruct you how to build a greywater purification system. Here as well.
I don't know about you, but that seems a little daunting to me. The U-Mass Extension website claims that you can put grey water directly onto your soil. There are special steps you need to follow, like this website suggests. Transportation of greywater could be an issue to some garden sites, and I realize this idea isn't perfect, but here's a scenario. Say there is a garden that is loaned land from a church (ideally located close to it). The church has a supper, and they save all their greywater (or most of it) in a bucket in their sink or trap it somehow. Then this water can be transported to the garden. I'm sure there are some flaws in this plan; for instance, Greywater Guerillas emphasizes the need to use the water in the time frame of 24 hours. Which could be a problem for some gardeners. And greywater should only be used if it has all-natural ingredients (i.e. if you don't use really nasty, chemical soap to wash your dishes). This could also limit its use. It's still something to keep in mind, however, especially in a place where water is scarce.
Another idea is to harvest rainwater. This might not be incredibly fruitful, since as I said it doesn't really... rain here! But I found this guide online from the Montana State University Extension about harvesting rainwater. It's only 4 pages long, as opposed to this one from the Texas Water Development Board, which is much more in depth. (By the way, before I forget, I got most of this stuff from here. This place has a LOT of water information.)
Another thought I had was about rain barrels. This may not be the most effective system in a rain-starved area, but the Maryland Environmental Design Program has this "recipe" to build a cheap (they say $15!) rain barrel.
There are ways to conserve water, most definitely, and hopefully when this program is established I can point people in the right direction. Water is a huge issue, obviously, when dealing with gardens.

In other news, I've been doing some research about growing stuff in a basement... I live in a basement, but I don't want to let that stop me during the winter. I'm not sure how well my plan will work, but it's worth a try. I've read some articles about "basement gardening" and they show pictures of long, flourescent tubes hanging from ceilings and loads of plants under them. I don't have that kind of room... so I think once I fix my table (whose leg cracked in a silly moving accident), I will take a lamp, put a natural light bulb in it, and see if I can grow a basil plant or something. I hope I'm not making a huge mistake... we'll see how that goes, anyway!

At some point, I will start putting pictures on here. It must be boring to have only text all the time!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Everybody's Doing It!

Today has been a little quieter. After the excitement of donations and press coverage in the past few days I am feeling a little restless, but it's to be expected. I am so eager to DO things!
However in the calm before the storm I have found some more interesting links to share.
The first is a website called Kitchen Gardeners International. It's a website that connects gardeners of any level from all over the world through blogs, videos, groups, gardening tips, and whatever else.
Anyone who's been following the news has probably heard about the newly planted White House garden. Which is pretty awesome. This project was heavily promoted by a man named Roger Doiron through a program called Eat the View. He has a great video on his website that essentially shows him turning his lawn into a garden. He started a huge petition, and now the Obamas have a garden on the White House lawn for the first time since the 40's (I think)!
I went deeper into the mire of information and came across some other stuff, some of it... slightly questionable...? But also very interesting. There is apparently a loosely-affiliated, worldwide movement that's come to be known as Guerilla Gardening. I read an article about it in "In Good Tilth", a publication from Oregon given to me by a co-worker. Guerilla Gardening is... what it sounds like. People plant flowers, vegetables, whatever in public places subversively. I don't know if I really want to break the law, necessarily, but I like their intent. It's not too hard to plant a flower in a vacant lot.
I went further into the world of Guerilla Gardening and found this link that tells how to make seed balls (also known as seed bombs). Apparently, though I've never tried it myself, you can literally lay them on the ground. The seeds are protected in the clay and when enough water permeates, the seeds will sprout. It's a way to plant something randomly and not have to worry about it, hence its connection to Guerilla Gardening.
Then I stumbled across something ELSE, in the same blog, known as moss graffiti. You can literally paint with moss. What a great way to make a blank stone wall, a wooden fence, or a bare rock into a work of art. It doesn't sound hard, either... if the foodbank is going to help people start gardens, we can help make them beautiful, too! A garden should be a personal reflection of the gardener, and each space should be unique.
Also! I almost forgot! The Seed Ambassadors are an organization dedicated to the preservation of seeds for biodiversity and the preservation of heirloom varieties. I am still very new to the whole concept of seed saving, but it's very exciting to me because it means that community gardens would have a MUCH easier time staying around. If they saved their seeds, it would give them a much better chance of sustaining themselves into the future, concerning both food and finances. Two very important topics, as we all know... On their website they have a free, non-copyrighted publication that lays out the basics of seed-saving for many plants here.
All this subversive gardening got me thinking about all the unused, ugly space that could be converted to green, useful space, and it just goes to show that all we really need to do is turn the way we think about gardening 30 degrees or so. People are gardening in cities, in their homes, vertically... If we can make compost in our houses, we can garden in our vacant lots.
So say I! Even if you plant one more flower in your yard, it's that much prettier.
And so concludes another day in the world of this VISTA.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

BUGS, Backyards, Newspapers

Yesterday I met with the executive director from a non-profit group here in town called the Boise Urban Garden School (BUGS). This is a garden behind a church in Boise that is essentially for educating children. They have all kinds of projects during the growing season, and it's almost entirely funded by grants. They grow all sorts of vegetables and some flowers, too. The meeting offered even more resources for me to check out.
First, she mentioned a place called Sharing Backyards. This is a website that covers the whole country and I think a few other parts of the world, too. People who have land to offer for gardening of farming purposes register it in this website, and through an interactive mapping system it shows up. Also, people who need land for farming or gardening purposes register. The point is to connect the searchers and the givers together and give them a place to figure out the logistics. This could be VERY useful to us if we need to tell people where to find land!
Secondly, she mentioned Sustainable Community Connections of Idaho. This is a group that focuses very heavily on the concept of local as sustainable. They have a big program they are just starting called the Treasure Valley Food Coalition. When I eventually re-form the Garden Committee (I may not have mentioned this before... part of my assignment involves forming a garden committee and tracking its membership), she suggested that I ask someone from this group to be on it. Makes sense to me!
She also gave me some good advice about forming the garden committee itself. As I have never really done this before, it was good to hear. Basically she told me to be very explicit and clear when explaining the committee's purpose and intentions, and to also be very clear concerning the commitment required of each member. There was a garden committee in the past but it fell apart. Apparently because those in charge were not entirely clear about what they expected from each member. Hopefully I won't make that mistake again...
In other news, I was contacted by a reporter from the Idaho Statesman who wants to interview me! That's really great news, because it could really get the word out there. That's the hope, anyway. I have never been interviewed for a newspaper before, so this will be a new experience!
Edit: I just remembered! At the Foothills Learning Center (3188 Sunset Peak Road) here in Boise there's going to be a free composting workshop this Saturday. It starts at 10, lasts an hour, and doesn't require any pre-registration.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I now have a facebook group! It's cleverly named Idaho Foodbank Community Gardens. There's not a whole lot going on there right now, but eventually it will be a source for announcements, etc.
I also have a little stint about me on the Idaho Foodbank facebook page, and because of it I got an e-mail from a local organic grower. She wants to donate some plants at the beginning of next growing season. Here's what it said (I'm famous, haha)!:

The Idaho Foodbank welcomes Beki Parham, a VISTA volunteer working with us as a Community Garden Coordinator. In time for the next growing season, Beki's goal is to develop a resource base for community garden projects, a central location and jumping-off point for community gardeners. Eventually, she wants to offer a small resource library, contacts, seeds, tools, and whatever else she can get her hands on for both the beginning and continuning community gardener. If you can help in any of these areas, please call Beki at 336-9643, ext. 246 or e-mail her at

Hopefully this will get the word out somewhat! Because it would certainly be easier if people came to me. I am also hoping this blog may do a little of that as well. I was very excited when I checked my e-mail this morning and had a plant donation already! It gives me hope for this coming growing season and adds yet another contact to my database :)

Update: I sent out an e-mail to the director of the Idaho Office for Refugees. According to their website, they get plenty of calls from people in Boise who want to start community gardens. There's even a waiting list! They also comment "there isn't anyone coordinating gardens on a large scale in Boise". Hopefully that will change!! I'm sure they would have access to lots of great resources, including people with land and translators. If we want our information to be available to everyone, it should be legible to refugees as well! They also have a really amazing start-up guide that even includes potential costs for gardening.

Monday, July 20, 2009


It has been a very busy past few days! On Thursday I had a meeting with my colleagues and we discussed what we would like to see with this project in the future. It's very much in its infancy at this point, but eventually we hope to be a resource for people to start community gardens. I have been looking up organizations that donate seeds. There are two specifically that I've come across. The first, Seeds of Change, donates heirloom seeds to many different community gardens and gardening groups throughout the world. I think our group and project would have a good chance of getting at least some sort of seed donation. The second, America the Beautiful, also donates seeds. Their application process seems a bit trickier, but it is still worth a try!
I have also, with some help from co-workers, been researching companies that donate equipment. Fiskars has a project called Project Orange Thumb in which they give grants to community gardens and donate equipment.
Our idea, after coming out of this meeting and discussing these different ideas for funding, was to establish a gardening base at the Foodbank. Our hope is that this base would offer library resources, contacts, seeds, tools, land, etc. and possibly even classes for the self-starters of the community. We would only be involved as far as people would like us to be involved; in other words, we would not demand that people offer part of their produce up for donation. The point of this project is to give people resources to get started and resources to feed themselves, not to have some ulterior motive and corner people. It is also important that each community garden is run by its own community. For any sustainable community project, we can't be the law lurking in the background forcing gardens to be dependent upon us. I think this is a very doable, very exciting prospect!
One thing to keep in mind: the aforementioned organizations are NOT limited to donating supplies to organizations like the Foodbank. They have lists on their websites of little community gardens they have donated supplies and seeds to. There are resources out there for people who want to start Community Gardens!!
On Friday I took a tour of the Treasure Valley, the predominantly agricultural area where I will work. It includes Boise and stretches all the way to Oregon. I think the terrain around here, after the deciduous forests of my homeland, is eerily beautiful. The openness and the big sky seem to offer up endless possibilities. The summer heat is a little more than I am used to...
On Saturday I summoned up all of my courage and went to the Idaho Green Expo in hope of making some contacts. I left my business cards with some organizations (I have business cards!!) and awkwardly explained to them what I am doing. People were so eager about the idea, and they offered me business cards and lots of information. It was wonderful!! I'm sure that will get easier... I've never approached people in that way before.
Those contacts have been stowed away in my Excel spreadsheet. Before too long, I will have to start organizing all of this information... as of now I don't have a filing system but that will come.
The book "Digging Deeper" was referred to me as a great resource to start community gardens. I think I'll ask the Foodbank to order it for our library!
And now, I must conclude, and attempt to sort through the mound of information I have collected. To the books and until next time!!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Today's Topic: Composting!

In order to have a successful garden, it is VITAL to have healthy soil. The nutrients present in the soil alone are often not enough to support plants, especially in a field or a garden; the plants simply use all of those nutrients up. What can you do to help your soil? Composting!
When I worked on an organic farm last summer, composting was everywhere, but I never actually had a hand in doing it. And not everyone has access to a large yard or open space to do it in, and sometimes, it stinks. But after some snooping around on the internet and a link to a YouTube video, the solution is here. I'm not sure how long it takes, because I have never actually done it myself, but I hope I can try it soon. This video gives a demonstration on indoor composting. I also found this very descriptive blog entry on indoor composting. Some points differ on the two; for instance one uses just black and white newspaper while the other uses color ads. As I am not an expert I'm not sure which is better... but it appears that both work. And apparently, they don't smell!
The idea of indoor composting is very exciting to me, because that means anyone can do it, pretty much wherever you live, and there is no reason it has to be expensive! You can find a use for your old food scraps, and make compost for a community garden or your own garden. The blog entry suggests ordering worms online, but worms are also available in the ground or in more abundancy from a local bait shop.
A few other notes on compost: I toured a facility a few months ago called Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and they use what they called "compost tea". Basically, you use a bag of compost like a tea bag; find a mesh bag or something similar, put compost in it, and put the bag into a bucket of water. The compost will ooze out into the water if you leave it sit, and then you have water that plants LOVE. Another way they utilized compost was for heating purposes. They were able to extend the growing season all year round for hearty plants like spinach, because they used compost under their greenhouses to heat them. This means they extended the growing season without electricity. I saw it, it works. Of course this takes a LOT of compost; they had access to food waste from several area restaurants. But it's something to think about!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gardening Adventure: Days 1 and 2

Well, here I am. After donating nearly half of my things to a local Salvation Army, throwing the rest of my life into my van, and driving from Winona, Minnesota to Boise, Idaho, I have landed on the eve of my new life. I am now officially working as a VISTA volunteer for the Idaho Foodbank as a Community Garden Coordinator. I have my own cubicle, which is definitely a new experience, and I will have to adjust to office life. However I am sure that this won't be just any mundane office experience... this will be my foray into the non-profit sector, and my foray into the start of my professional life.
At this point I am still setting up. My first day of work was yesterday, though on Saturday I went to a local farm and a local garden to weed, pick raspberries, and pick up produce. Like any new job I am feeling slightly overwhelmed and confused, but I have never been so excited to work before.
In the Treasure Valley, which encompasses Boise and the surrounding area, there is a growing (haha) interest in community gardening. The resources are there, the volunteers are there, and the desire is there. The only thing lacking is a central point of reference to join all of these willing people together. I, hopefully, will be part of that central point. These first few days I am still getting my feet wet, but this project has so much potential. It is incredibly thrilling and exciting to me that I can use my farming experience (limited as it is... one summer is not nearly enough to become an expert!) and my enthusiasm for food in general and really, hopefully, HELP some people. I believe everyone, absolutely everyone, deserves access to heathly, fresh, affordable food. I am itching to get started!
Here are some resources I have stumbled across already:
Brooklyn Botanic Garden website:
--> This place is a fantastic resource. They have all kinds of information about gardens all over the country, and tips for how to start your own garden.
American Community Garden Association (ACGA):
-->This website is basically THE main place to go. They have a community garden database, which I thought was useful.
Ample Harvest:
--> This is more of a national resource, but it allows people to register their extra food or search for a foodbank where they can donate it. There is an abundance of food that is either not suitable for sale, missed by harvesters, or not needed by home gardeners.

That's all for today. I think it's about time for lunch... as far as food goes, I need to feed myself as well!