Gro Gardening Initiative
By: Patty McKenna
Toward the end of my Master of Public Health degree program, I convinced my graduate committee that taking the Permaculture Design Course (PDC)was a relevant elective for public health and specifically my work on local gardening. In March of 2020, my graduate teaching assistant job and my classes went on-line, all my reasons for leaving the house evaporated. Now this was early on in the pandemic, and as a graduate student I was among the privileged folks who were able to safely stay home, without suffering economically. My social life on the other hand….those were strange days. I would have struggled immeasurably more if not for my roommates.
As our exterior lives disrupted, my three roommates and I went to work turning our large front yard into a plethora of edible plant life. One roommate, Mary Connor, had just graduated with a horticulture degree from K-State. She led us in lasagna mulching the grass and planting a cover crop of buckwheat and clover. My dad, who grew up on an Iowa farm, gave us advice over the phone. He also contributed the house where we lived, which is a passive solar home that he designed and built when I was a kid. The house came with a shed full of tools that we used for these projects.
Prior to 2020 I was strictly a harvester, but during my time as a graduate student I pursued my interest in climate and environmental issues. By the time the pandemic came along I was convinced that our lifestyles were going to become more locally focused. Our current dependence on fossil fuels (on and off the farm), monoculture, mass animal production for meat, and over-consumption of resources, to name a few of the complex issues we are facing, are not viable over the long term. Most of society is continuing full steam ahead with these current systems. When break down inevitably occurs, I want my community to know how to grow food and have strong social relationships so that they can rely on each other during the difficult years ahead of us.
With this in mind, I started work on a grant to support a food production project that aims to increase food production in people’s yards. I called this project the GRO Gardening Teams. I attended the summer 2020 PDC held at K-State’s Willow Lake Student Farm where I learned broad concepts for working in tandem with natural systems. I also participated in hands-on learning activities including soil testing and composting. It was A LOT to take in in only 10 days! My awareness from this course, including the 12 permaculture principles, carries over into my work with local gardeners in my community.
When I visit neighbors, who want a new garden bed, I utilize my site evaluation skills, paying attention to sun/shade, slope, plants already present (say no to bermuda grass!), etc. We obtain compost from the transfer station, wood chips from neighbors, and share tools instead of buying new whenever possible. I feel supported by our local permie, Carol Barta. I call on her frequently when things get beyond my level of expertise, which is often.
After working for a year on these tasks, I am finally getting the feel of seasonal flow and social momentum. Principle 9; Use small and slow solutions, symbolized by the snail, aptly represents my attempts to nudge my community to get local with food. My big idea of gardening teams, with scheduled meetings, has morphed into taking every opportunity to engage my neighbors around gardening. The sweet spot for me is the moment I can say, “How can I help you with your gardening?” By assisting with tasks such as digging beds, bringing compost, bringing plants, or bringing in the expertise of Carol Barta we can accomplish so much, without exhausting ourselves or breaking our bank accounts or exhausting the earth’s resources.
The GRO project has now turned into the GRO Gardening Initiative. It is overseen by UFM Community Learning Center here in Manhattan. UFM runs the Community Gardens. In future months, I will look at partnering with the Gardens more extensively. They are potentially a great resource of experienced gardeners who can mentor and support new gardeners growing food in their yards. Social change is definitely a process. The principles of permaculture are tools to play with when envisioning a healthy, abundant, and grounded life for our communities. I am so glad I took KPI’s PDC and became connected to permaculture folks here in my region.
For more information, you can contact Patty at
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