Collective gardening as research (it might not be what you think)

Last summer, my husband and I built a small garden-on-wheels: it was a large rectangular planter mounted on the wheel base of an old wagon, planted with three tomato seedlings, a kale plant, a marigold, sage and parsley. After it was finished, we posted a message to our neighbourhood Facebook group, asking if anyone had a sunny spot where we could park the garden for a couple of weeks, at which point we promised to find another home for it. We asked the hosts to water it for us, but other than that, and a bit of staking and periodic fertilizing (by me), the garden required little care. It toured the neighbourhood for the summer, producing a healthy crop of heritage tomatoes and fresh herbs that we then shared in various ways with the hosts and other people in the neighbourhood. It was a fun thing to do, and everyone who helped out seemed to enjoy it. We met some of our neighbours and discovered a shared interest in gardening that we might not otherwise have known about. But it was more than this–or at least, I think it could be.

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I have spent the intervening months trying to figure out what that ‘more’ could be, and specifically, whether it might constitute a kind of research. Obviously it would be a different kind of research than gets done in universities. But after spending the last eighteen months or so on a partial hiatus from the academic world, I am very interested in that possibility. What if research was done by people whose contribution was motivated by something other than an academic career? Would it produce a different kind of knowledge? This is of course not to discredit academic research, but to treat it as a foil for the production of something else. After this little experiment, I don’t think I am qualified to say exactly what that something else is, but I am beginning to have an idea about where it might lead.

Let’s say that, in a general sense, the point of research is to produce knowledge. Any project undertaken by human beings in settings where there are unknowns, will produce knowledge of some kind. But I am not, for example, talking about local or horticultural knowledge (what gardeners learn about growing particular plants in a given location). And though I think there is important social and practical knowledge gained through this kind of undertaking (e.g., how to share the work involved, as well as the food produced), what I am after is more than this, too. I think that, undertaken in an open-ended fashion, and accompanied by a certain amount of reflexive discussion about how things are being done and why, collective gardening might be a way to develop new ways not only to do but also to think about gardening.

For example, the successful cultivation of our orphan tomatoes, tended by a series of strangers in several different locations, showed that gardens can do things other than what some garden historians and theorists have argued they most fundamentally do (i.e., stake a claim to territory or express an attachment to place). In fact, if we are being generous, these tomatoes turn the whole history of agriculture on its head: staying in one place and ‘putting down roots’ is supposed to be a way for human societies to increase the efficiency of food production and therefore the quality of life. But the orphan tomato plants produced bigger fruit in greater quantity than those I grew on my back deck, which had a head start but received less sunshine, and were also somewhat neglected while we were on holiday for two weeks.

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A ripe ‘Black Seaman’ tomato, with ‘Blanche du Québec’, not quite there yet.

They demonstrated not only the importance of sunshine and attention from a human being (which every gardener already knows about), but also that these needs can be met collectively, on the basis of resources other than that of arable land, which is where much research on the politics of collective gardening has so far focused. Though this focus is perhaps due in part to the way differences in access to land overlap with environmental and economic inequalities that are in themselves urgently important to address, it might actually conceal a more fundamental condition of collective gardening: the coordination of attention to the needs of plants. In times and places where arable land for collective cultivation is in short supply (i.e., in cities), the problem of how to source and coordinate an adequate amount of sunshine and attention deserves research and action alongside work on improving access to land.

It is important to note that this preliminary, partially-formed insight into the socio-political dimensions of collective food gardening, started with a relatively disinterested doing. I wanted to garden with others, but I live in a city where there are few existing opportunities to do so–in part because many people have space to garden in their own yards. We had an old wagon, and extra tomato seedlings, so a garden-on-wheels presented itself as a straightforward but fun thing to try. It was not only an altruistic act (which is how many of our neighbours saw it), but also a socially speculative one. To the extent that it can lead to the development of knowledge, it’s going to require more doing, of a similarly open-ended nature but with a greater involvement of others–including I hope, more discussion about what it is we are doing. However, if we succeed, and manage to refine or correct or extend what I have sketched out above, it will be because we wanted to, because we enjoyed doing it, and because the work–as well as the talking and thinking–could be integrated into our everyday lives.

This means that the knowledge we produce will be something that we share–not only as an accomplishment, but as a sense of belonging and purpose and competence that might enable us to do other things together. Like stand up for our local environment, or convince more people in the neighbourhood to grow food too. Then knowledge might have value not only in itself, or for what other knowledge it enables, but also because of what it allows and motivates and sustains the researchers to do, with others.

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