Sometimes getting your hands dirty is a good thing – ask any gardener. In addition to connecting with nature, small-scale local food production can benefit individual health, the community and future generations. It’s no wonder that the practice is beginning to take root in OKC.
Paul Mays oversees a large garden right on the west edge of The Paseo, and unfortunately, it’s a garden without cows. In Oklahoma City, you have to have more than an acre of land to raise livestock.
“Technically, you can raise cows if you have an acre,” Mays says. “So, if you owned an apartment complex, you could raise cows where the swimming pool usually is?” With a laugh, he adds, “I like the idea of cows in an apartment complex.”
Really, who doesn’t? Proponents of urban farms contend that the one-acre restriction is arbitrary, but U.S. cities use the old Imperial standard of land for real estate. Urban gardens or farms are governed by the same zoning ordinances and definitions as any other endeavor within city limits. In other words, no cows in your backyard.
But proponents like Mays are working within those restrictions to expand green space in Oklahoma City, even as they work to change legislation and zoning ordinances to make urban farming and gardening more accessible and more productive.
When Amy Young purchased the Paseo building that would ultimately be SixTwelve, she knew she wanted an urban garden. Situated on property that once included another structure – since torn down – SixTwelve offers a set of community-building services and learning opportunities, including arts, cooking, gardening, music, sustainable living practices, an afterschool program and a school. Mays had been an avid gardener for about five years when he spoke with Young about volunteering to take care of the urban garden that would be part of SixTwelve’s offerings. During some of those years, he was working with Lia Woods and Allen Parlier of CommonWealth Urban Farms; he calls them his mentors.
“I love urban gardening because it brings a little bit of my upbringing into the city,” Mays says. “I grew up interacting with nature – spiders, snakes – so I learned not to be afraid, and I want people to understand we live in an ecosystem, even in the city.”
Mays planted the 30-foot by 30-foot garden in August 2014, but that was just phase one of his plan to create a sustainable agricultural ecosystem in the center of the city. Systems of all kinds contain interdependent components, and he believes that if it’s planned well, a farm or garden will function better, sustainably, cleanly.
Don’t Fence Me In
One of the key obstacles when creating an urban garden – especially one that’s practical, not ornamental – is that space is limited, so each component has to actually do something for the whole … and if the components have multiple functions, even better.
With that in mind, Mays planted fruit trees all around the edge of the property: nectarine, peach, cherry, fig and pear. With the fruit come birds – or as Mays calls them, competition for food. Sure, birds will eat bugs that destroy plants, but they also eat fruit. On the other hand, every blossoming plant brings pollinators, and they are critical to the system. A properly functioning ecosystem is really a beautifully synergistic world unto itself, he said.
Lia Woods at CommonWealth functions on a much smaller space than SixTwelve, and her experience working on one-seventh of an acre has forced her to think about how the system’s elements work together – lessons she passed on to Mays.
“The challenge on a plot this size is to be very selective,” she says. “It forces us to be super conscientious about planning and land use.”
Mays, Woods and other urban gardening proponents have been instrumental in guiding legislation that makes their tasks, including planning and use, much easier. (In fact, Mays worked for three years to achieve a zoning redefinition that allows him to raise chickens on his less-than-one-acre farm.) Woods is quick to praise the Oklahoma City Planning Commission and City Council for the work in 2013 that broadened the rights of urban gardeners and farmers. The urban agriculture legislation in 2013 defined compost, clarified the rules for vegetable gardens and community gardens, took the first swing at dealing with backyard chickens and made clear rules about greenhouses and hoop houses on non-commercial property.
“At every step of the process, they worked with us to ensure that the legislation would deal with real issues,” Woods says. “The planning department allowed input from urban gardeners, and that allowed us to craft a code that is very specific.”
Woods started as a home gardener and worked in her yard for more than 30 years before making the jump to CommonWealth. A group of her friends and fellow gardening enthusiasts wanted to expand green space in Oklahoma City, so they began cultivating in fall of 2011, and then started their first Community Supported Agriculture program in April 2012.
In Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), people purchase locally produced food by purchasing a “share” or membership in the group. As a return on investment, the farmer will provide goods at scheduled intervals, and participants typically have no control over what ends up in their box. It’s not like a grocery store or website where you check off choices. Instead, it’s much more like a Mystery Box Challenge on “MasterChef,” making your meals based on what’s in the box or bag. For food nerds, the challenge is half the fun, and they get to support local farmers as a bonus.
Over the years, Woods and Parlier have assembled a large team of volunteers, and CommonWealth now sells food and cut flowers to restaurants and individuals. Those beautiful blooms aren’t grown on site, though – raising 50 varieties of cut flowers requires much more space than CommonWealth has, so Woods turned to her mentor, and one of the pioneers of urban gardening in Oklahoma City: Chef Kamala Gamble.
The Genealogy of Urban Gardening
Talk to urban gardeners and farmers in Oklahoma City and the conversation will end up at Kamala Gamble. Much like tracing a genealogy, the network of relationships comes back to Gamble because she dragged Oklahoma City into the slow food movement and helped the city fall in love with CSAs.
Gamble started Guilford Gardens in suburban northwest Oklahoma City in 2001. At the time, Oklahoma’s CSAs existed primarily in rural areas. Larger cities around the country had them, but they were utterly new to Oklahoma City when Gamble launched hers. She started small, but when three surrounding residential lots came available, she said it made sense to acquire them. The two-acre garden that is the heart of Guilford was built from those four residential lots, and she now has a greenhouse and two hoop houses.
Now she sells produce to more than just subscribers. Asked if it was all part of a grand plan or vision, she tells the story of when the Food Network came to Oklahoma City to interview her as part of a piece on CSAs.
“They asked if I’d planned this whole thing,” she says. “I asked them, ‘Why would anyone plan this?!’”
Chef, marathon runner, mother of two, former protégé of Rick Bayless, business owner, pioneer … there really is no end to the commas in describing Gamble or her accomplishments. LaVeryl Lower, owner of The Metro – one of the city’s hardest-working people in food – describes Gamble as “the hardest-working woman I know.” Anyone familiar with Lower or The Metro will understand the weight of that compliment.
“She is passionate, and she works tirelessly,” Lower says. “I’ve been using her CSA for 10 to 12 years for my own family, and I keep going back because the food is excellent – locally grown and healthy.”
Like many Oklahomans, Gamble grew up with a family garden that contributed substantially to the meals in her home. “It’s important to eat healthy,” she says, “and I think people would be healthier if they ate things grown in their own gardens.”
As for Gamble’s family, she feeds her children from Guilford Gardens, adding incentive to practice agriculture in a way that, even if not certified organic, is sustainable and healthy. Training children is always the key to keeping practices alive generation to generation, and urban gardeners believe that if children learn early what food is supposed to taste like, the work of creating healthy eaters who are aware of where their food comes from and what it takes to produce it advances.
“When you start gardening, you become aware of things that you didn’t notice before,” Gamble says. “Like with any profession, there are things you notice when you are inside that profession. Farmers and gardeners are tuned into how important the weather is, how dependent we are on rain and how important the difference is between a heavy and light rain.”
Here Comes the Rain
Urban farmers and gardeners’ attention to the weather cycle is a consistent theme because of the commitment to create green spaces free of pesticides and other chemicals. Some of those chemicals can help when the weather isn’t cooperating, or when it’s a particularly nasty year for a particular pest, but Mays points out that those chemicals are not then limited to the garden space. They are washed away by rain, and carried into the waste stream.
Cities around the country with scarce water resources have implemented programs to capture storm run-off. One of the solutions is very simple, and Mays is working on it: Curb cutouts capture storm runoff water and repurpose it for irrigation without using up city resources. For his space, Mays is planning on creating a rain garden just off the sidewalk using a curb cutout.
Much of the land in Oklahoma, including the metro, is primarily clay. Clay is not water-friendly; it acts as a repellent. To better help with water retention, Mays added a layer of organic material to the clay base at SixTwelve. The layer acts like a sponge, holding the water in place, reducing the amount of city water necessary in dry periods.
These kinds of synergistic relationships between urban gardeners and municipalities make it easier for legislators to support rules that are helpful for farmers and gardeners, they believe. Helping the gardeners helps the city preserve resources, and it makes healthy, affordable food available to a wider range of people.
In 2013, during meetings with the City Council about the urban agriculture legislation, Councilman Ed Shadid highlighted the desirability of these urban spaces by drawing a comparison between the healthy food at Whole Foods and that found in urban gardens. Shadid said many people couldn’t afford to shop at Whole Foods and other grocers featuring genuinely healthy food, but could afford to grow their own or participate in CSAs. The policy helps urban gardeners, local consumers and the city by making more resources available without drawing on city or state resources. The urban gardens and farms are not just micro-ecosystems; they are micro-economies.
Amy Young says they want their garden to be a visible sign of people taking care of each other.
“We’re producing food, yes, and we are making it available affordably, but we are also developing a seed bank that people can access, and we offer multiple educational opportunities to teach the practices that make sustainability and mutual care possible,” she says.
Teach Your Children Well
SixTwelve incorporates education about farming and gardening into the curriculum for its school and afterschool programs. Hands-on experience for young people is right outside the door, a rare enough phenomenon for city kids. The commitment to education is a common theme with urban farmers and gardeners, too.
Gamble offers tours of Guilford Gardens for nearly every community group imaginable, such as schools, scouts and churches. She thinks of it as giving back to the community, as well as helping to transform lives. Exposing people to good food creates a higher level of expectation for fresh, locally produced food.
“Over the years, I’ve seen how it transforms the way people eat,” Gamble says. “They tell me it changes their habits, and eating this way is healthier.”
CommonWealth offers volunteer opportunities every Saturday all year long. In addition to helping with composting and gardening, volunteers learn the keys to succeeding, the basics of sustainability and basic rules for tools and implements. Beginning in March, they offer Garden School each year. The school is a more formalized instructional environment, and the instruction is supplemented with hands-on work.
Education is central for Mays’ philosophy, too. He talks about sustainability, the ecosystem, composting and gardening with patient excitement. He’s not an evangelist per se, but he does preach a pretty good sermon without sounding like a preacher – a plus when trying to get people on board. Even when he says something like, “We are destroying ourselves by destroying our ecosystem,” he doesn’t sound apocalyptic, nor does he burn with pseudo-religious zeal. He is sincere and calm.
Every step of the process is something that can be taught, and when you’re talking to children, he says things like chickens are super helpful in getting and keeping attention, as are bees. Mays hopes to have bees soon, and the chickens arrived in March. The prospect of a beekeeper in a mysterious suit – looking for all the world like a hazmat technician with a smoker – is fascinating, even as the idea of thousands of bees may be horrifying to children (and adults). But Mays is also combating the fear, bringing back his experiences as a child, interacting with nature without fear, understanding the cycle, respecting the place.
Bringing the country into the city is good for all of us in more ways than we imagine, Mays believes.
“Learning to create a relationship with the natural world that exists all around us in the city is of vital importance,” he says. “Urban farming can nurture our patience while living in the fast pace of the city, and it helps us recognize that we are nature, not something separate from it.”