The Community’s Garden Orchestra

Posted on July 14, 2015 by

The Community's Garden Orchestra

Illustration by Amelia Troyer

In the modern world, many people generate music by flicking a switch, pressing a button, turning a dial, or tapping a keypad or touchscreen. And many of us obtain food by swiping a card or lightening a wallet.

Others, however, create music by picking up instruments or using their own voices. And some people grow at least a portion of their own food too, by participating intimately with its creation in a garden or on a farm.

Likewise, although the feeling of community may be instantly available to us by tuning into a sports game or visiting a Facebook page, we can also choose to take a deeper plunge into the process of growing more intimate real-world community with others.

When an intentional community—or group of committed friends or neighbors—also makes the choice to grow some of its own food together, it challenges both the culture of purchased food and the modern culture of individualism (a culture very much related to that in which the push of a button can bring someone with adequate credit almost anything, whether for entertainment or sustenance).

My own experience in community tells me that getting involved in food-production, especially in a group setting, is like making our own music: it’s not necessarily the easier choice, but the ultimate results can nourish us and our communities in ways much more profound than a pre-packaged product ever could.

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There are as many ways to grow food together as there are to create music together. My brother, a classical violinist, has performed both in conventionally-run orchestras and in an innovative conductor-less orchestra called Orpheus, in which participants share in leadership and can find themselves simultaneously more individually empowered and more connected with each other. Collective gardening projects can adopt either approach or anything in between or even beyond this spectrum. While some groups emulate the hierarchical structure of a traditional orchestra, the more egalitarian, participant-run approach of Orpheus more closely matches what many communities engage in or aspire to.

In the diverse instruments of an orchestra, opportunities for cacophony abound—so too in a “garden orchestra” made up of diverse communitarians. Not every instrument belongs in every orchestra—some end up being simply incompatible, especially when their populations are not in proper proportion with one another. Whether in collective music-making or collective food-growing, optimal results come when players learn to cooperate, listen to one another, engage in give-and-take, achieve attunement, and find a balance of tension and harmony among the very different, potentially clashing voices and positions they bring to the endeavor.

This kind of creative alchemy isn’t always easy, considering the wide variety of approaches, temperaments, and preferences quickly manifested in any group of do-it-yourselfers—yet it is necessary if you want to have any hope of producing your own music or food together. Listed below are some of the parts I’ve witnessed—individuals who may join, or wish to join, your community’s garden orchestra (each assigned a vegetable or herb name, for the purpose of keeping their real-life doppelgangers anonymous). This list is incomplete—feel free to suggest additions:

Amaranth: First trained in the French-intensive biodynamic method of gardening, and then attracted by permaculture’s more natural approach, Amaranth values a combination of order and wildness in the garden. Amaranth leaves volunteer vegetables and edible or useful weeds to grow, while tenaciously removing less desirable plants. Amaranth likes to garden well in relatively smaller areas rather than garden sloppily in larger areas, and prefers to encourage the native ecosystem except in the focused high-production growing areas. Amaranth values both the process of growing—the experience—and the product—the food grown—and how those things are done matters a lot to Amaranth, who uses hand tools almost exclusively. Every choice expresses a value, either supporting or working against the kind of world that we want to live in and/or create, both in the garden and outside of it.

Artichoke: Artichoke is a strict utilitarian whose main goal is to maximize food production. Time and efficiency are central factors. Artichoke will happily use a rototiller, mower, or tractor for tillage or weed control, if that will save time over more labor-intensive methods. For Artichoke, gardening is less a spiritual, aesthetic, interpersonal, community-building, or natural-history experience than an economic one, intended to meet the needs of humans for physical nourishment.

Arugula: Arugula takes Artichoke’s perspective a step further. Whereas Artichoke may hold the group’s needs as the highest priority, Arugula is an entrepreneur who has learned, and brings to the garden, the philosophy that the priority for each individual must be to meet their own needs—and the results of the individual’s success or prosperity will then ripple outward. Arugula will not think twice about enlisting leased garden space for the highest-income use, even if, for example, that is not growing food for consumption by the community, but instead growing vegetable starts for the local farmers’ market.

Basil: Extensively read in permaculture before ever getting involved in a garden, Basil brings the perspective that growing food shouldn’t be hard work—we can set up systems that will eventually feed us almost effortlessly. Basil resists getting sucked into work that appears to be monotonous or “drudgery,” instead preferring to design food forests, plan swales, and create hugelkultur beds.

Bean: Bean, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the working conditions of most farmworkers around the world. Bean considers “let nature do the work” and “lazy gardener” approaches to be escapist, elitist fantasies of the privileged, and uses gardening as a way to become a “world citizen,” aspiring to work as hard as any campesino. Bean will create extra work, even dig a bed twice, simply as a way of staying true to the vision of being an equal world citizen, allied with those who have no other choice but to work tirelessly to feed themselves and others.

Beet: For Beet, gardening is most importantly a way to get to know other people. Beet loves working alongside others, having conversations, singing, finding a common rhythm. Beet would rather spend twice as long in the garden to achieve the same amount of physical work if it means having quality human connections while doing so.

Borage: Borage, on the other hand, thinks talk and socializing are distractions. For that reason, Borage prefers to work alone, and sees gardening almost as a workout, a sport in which the competition may be with self rather than others, but in which there is no room for lack of focus.

Broccoli: Broccoli also likes working alone, but as a form of meditation and spiritual attunement. Like Beet, Broccoli would rather spend twice as long in the garden to achieve the same amount of physical work—if it means that Broccoli’s soul is nourished by slowing down to connect with the larger natural and spiritual worlds.

Brussel Sprout: Brussel Sprout is a spontaneous, intuitive gardener who prefers going to the garden each day and seeing what it is asking for rather than mapping out most activities in advance. A large number of variables, from current weather to soil moisture to recent plant growth to insect presence, can tip the scales in one direction or another. This can be either illuminating or frustrating to others working under Brussel Sprout’s leadership or tutelage—illuminating if they are able to learn how Brussel Sprout does it, frustrating if they just want to know and prepare for what is going to happen that day in the garden.

Cabbage: Cabbage loves planning, scheduling, and record-keeping. No activity occurs in Cabbage’s garden without first being written down and perhaps illustrated in the garden planner. Meticulous records of the history of every bed are a natural accompaniment to the crop labels adorning every planting. Those working under Cabbage’s leadership will always know ahead of time what to look forward to—with excitement or not—in the garden that day.

Cardoon: Cardoon likes to keep things simple: one crop per bed. Interplanting complicates things. Any plant out of place is considered a weed—and, ideally, eliminated. Paths are scraped clean and/or mulched so as to prevent unwanted plant growth. Cardoon also likes to weigh every ounce of vegetable production, and record its place of origin within the garden—a process made easier by this “zero-tolerance” monocrop method.

Carrot: Carrot likes to “mix it up,” and sees conventional rows and single-crop plantings as boring. Every gardening season Carrot seeks to expand the known horizons of companion planting and garden bed geometry, with (as expected) mixed results.

Cauliflower: Cauliflower saves seeds from almost everything. In fact, at any time at least half of Cauliflower’s garden seems to have gone to seed. Paths become nonnavigable, and harvestable crops more difficult to find, but fellow gardeners also appreciate the savings in financial outlay and the flourishing of homegrown vegetable and herb varieties.

Celeriac: Celeriac can’t tolerate plants gone to seed, and instead may crank out twice as many crops per year as Cauliflower does—all out of purchased seed packets. Pollinators prefer Cauliflower’s garden, but Celeriac wins the prize for neatness and ease of harvest.

Celery: Celery believes that if some water is good for plants, more is better. Every day all garden beds receive several hours of water. Roots tend to stay near the surface, and mildew and disease can take hold, but at least the soil feels moist most of the time, and nothing dies of thirst.

Chard: Chard likes to dry-farm whenever possible. In fact, the only plants that survive in Chard’s garden are ones that can tolerate dehydration. To be fair, Chard has developed several methods for conserving water in the soil that may come in very handy when irrigation is less available or when drought sets in.

Chicory: Chicory is a strict no-digger. Chicory encourages the soil ecosystem by never disturbing its layers, but instead only plucking from the surface and top-dressing with organic matter left to break down there.

Cilantro: Cilantro is a double- and even triple-digger, who likes nothing more than going deep down into the soil, loosening it up, and adding organic matter into it, while still attempting to maintain its previously-existing layers as much as possible.

Collard: Collard likes digging too—except Collard turns the soil upside down while doing so, to bury stuff that might have been growing on the surface and “give the other soil a chance.”

Corn: Corn loves plastic, whether in the form of plant pots, seedling trays, row covers, or greenhouse plastic—citing its convenience and low cost.

Cress: Cress detests plastic on both environmental and aesthetic grounds, and uses alternatives whenever available (and whenever they will fly with other community members).

Cucumber: Cucumber gets up early every morning, and likes to “beat the heat” by working hard before taking a midday break.

Dill: Dill would by preference sleep until late morning, and start gardening no earlier than noon.

Eggplant: Eggplant is a novice gardener already disillusioned by the fact that we are growing almost exclusively crops from Europe and Asia, rather than native crops, here on North American soil. (Ironically, Eggplant is a transplant from Eurasia as well.)

Endive: Endive is a new garden apprentice who is excited to try anything (be it digging a bed, weeding, sowing vegetable starts, thinning beets, building compost)—once. After that, the novelty usually wears off and it’s drudgery.

Fennel: By contrast, fellow garden newcomer Fennel rarely voluntarily tries a new activity, once a groove is found on a now-familiar activity. Currently, Fennel seems unlikely to put down a shovel to learn how to save seeds unless the shovel is taken forcefully from co’s tightly-clenched hands (an act which would violate community nonviolence agreements).

Garlic: Garlic is comfortable when it’s clear who is in charge. Garlic can adapt to being on either end of a hierarchy—making decisions and giving direction, or following someone else’s decisions and direction—but does not like group decision-making or lack of clear structure.

Kale: Kale doesn’t like it when anybody is in charge. Period.

Kohlrabi: Kohlrabi grew up rurally, and was made to do farm chores throughout childhood by parents with a deeply-ingrained Protestant work ethic. Kohlrabi doesn’t want to do any more gardening, ever.

Lambsquarter: Lambsquarter, on the other hand, appreciates the back-to-the-land childhood that has made gardening and farming as comfortable and familiar as eating and sleeping. Lambsquarter may or may not feel discouraged by the apparent cluelessness that some fellow communitarians possess about basic rural living skills.

Leek: Leek also has a lot of background in physical labor—perhaps too much. Leek now suffers from chronic injuries and conditions which impede the ability to perform many gardening tasks.

Lettuce: Lettuce has no background in physical labor, but leaps into a full-time gardening apprenticeship wholeheartedly, only to discover that a lifetime of sitting at desks in climate-controlled environments proves ill preparation for spending anything more than an hour or two a day doing physical work outside.

Melon: New gardener Melon has read a lot about gardening—including so much contradictory information that doing it the “right” way now seems like an insoluble puzzle. Melon is thinking about switching to the construction crew, or perhaps getting into bookkeeping.

Mustard: Mustard is a photographer, writer, and blogger. A little actual gardening goes a long way on a typical gardening day—especially when Mustard has a macro-lens-equipped digital camera, a notebook, and/or a smart phone in hand.

Onion: Onion loves gardening, but hates kids…or at least kids in the garden. “One step forward, two steps back” is Onion’s wry comment every time one appears to lend a hand.

Orach: Orach loves both gardening and children, believing that, together, they’re our only hopes for the future. To Orach, a little backwards progress is a small price to pay for helping raise the next generation of gardeners.

Oregano: Oregano is rarely seen without earbuds—either listening to internet radio or having cell phone chats with friends or family. This lends itself better to peaceful coexistence with other gardeners than did Oregano’s previous practice of toting around a blaring boombox—but communicating with Oregano in “real space” can still present challenges.

Parsley: Parsley is a strict vegan, and carries that philosophy into the garden. Parsley avoids the use both of animals and of animal manures in the garden, relying instead on the vegetable and mineral realms to return nutrients to the soil.

Parsnip: Parsnip believes the cycle of life is not complete without including animals in the gardening mix, and happily makes use of both trucked-in manures (for nutrients and organic matter) and on-farm animals (for soil improvement, pest control, egg and meat production, entertainment, etc.).

Pea: Pea is an ex-gardener, now massage therapist, attending to the needs of the current gardeners (future massage therapists) still active in the field.

Pepper: Pepper starts every day in the garden with a ritual attunement, and usually asks permission of vegetables before harvesting them. Pepper also blesses seeds while planting, praying for improved germination and growth.

Potato: Potato is skeptical of everything Pepper holds sacred—and in fact of anything that can’t be proven scientifically. In a side-by-side trial initiated by Potato, seeds that Potato had cursed actually outperformed seeds that Pepper had blessed—not only in germination but in growth rates and in harvest produced. Third parties were left to wonder, “Is Potato’s curse actually a blessing?”

Pumpkin: Pumpkin is the ultimate taste-tester. In the same way that grazing deer leave unmistakable marks on the landscape, Pumpkin’s trail through the garden is easily spotted.

Purslane: Purslane, by contrast, never snacks in the garden at all. “I just brushed my teeth” is Purslane’s most common explanation, but an irrational slug-slime phobia may be at the root.

Radish: Radish’s main reason for being in the garden is that it’s a socially-approved form of incessant nature-study. Hearing 40 different bird species’ songs and calls in a morning will excite Radish much more than an unexpectedly doubled yield of, for example, radishes.

Rhubarb: Rhubarb grew up believing that the outdoors is boring, and that physical work and rural life are to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, despite Rhubarb’s best efforts to overcome prejudice through total immersion, these deeply ingrained beliefs are proving hard to shake.

Rutubaga: Rutabaga is about public service. Any excess garden production goes to the local soup kitchen. Public tours and education are a central part of the gardening activity. Volunteers from the local community, and even from within the criminal justice system, are welcomed into Rutabaga’s garden.

Spinach: Spinach resents Rutabaga’s exporting of organic matter (excess produce) from the community’s gardens, since it could be used to create compost to grow next year’s crops. Spinach is not eager to have paroled prisoners hanging out in the gardens either.

Squash: Squash is one of the community’s kitchen managers. Having gardened for many years, Squash welcomes anything the gardens produce and encourages cooks to incorporate it in meals, even if it is blemished, irregularly shaped, more difficult to clean, or more unusual than purchased produce would be. Why order broccoli from off-site when various brassica plants in our own gardens are sending up many smaller broccoli-like flower bud clusters?

Sunchoke: Sometime-kitchen-manager Sunchoke, by contrast, prefers to order more standard produce from off-site—especially for meals served to visitors and outside groups—rather than mess with what seem like sub-optimal crops from the community’s gardens. Why use random brassica flower buds from the garden when big, familiar, actual broccoli is available from the local organic wholesaler?

Tomato: Tomato arrives at the community ready to help heal the relationship between people, food, and the land. What will Tomato learn?

Turnip: Turnip recognizes that there are many possible parts to play in a garden and in a community, but that the single most important thing is simply to be there—to engage—and to see what unfolds. Something beautiful and nourishing, Turnip knows, will eventually grow out of it, despite and even because of the hardships and challenges.

Chris Roth edits Communities, and, in another lifetime, was a garden coordinator and organic gardening teacher whose Beetless’ Gardening Book: An Organic Gardening Songbook/Guidebook (Carrotseed Press) formed a unique entry into the 1997 garden-book canon. Please send garden orchestra member additions to editor [at]

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