Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gardens Galore! Part 1

Stijn took very seriously my mission of visiting gardens and delivered on his promise to show me food gardens in Belgium with exceptional form. Before I get into that, first let me say a word for serendipity and the strength of loose ties. Stijn and I met in 2004 at a conference of junior scholars in economic geography. We both were finishing PhDs at the time, and while we talked some then, never really kept in touch. This past April, we chatted at a party at our professional society's annual meeting and Stijn offered to host me in Belgium on my travels. Never one to say no to things like this, I jumped at the opportunity. Then and now, I am humbled and amazed at this generous gift of trust and hospitality.

That conference in 2004, more than any other for me, has influenced my life and career in unexpected and truly exceptional ways. I am in debt to the organizers and their efforts to generate the kind of social network that I now have as a result of that conference. Stijn’s work focuses on urban sociology of labor and urban renewal projects, and as such, he has little experience with my areas of interest, but… he just happens to have a new colleague, Barbara, who does. Let's here it for serendipity! Barbara put Stijn in touch with Cyrille of “Le Debut des Haricorts”—literally, the "start of the beans", and Jeroen of Auto-Suffisance (http://auto-suffisance.blogspot.com/). These two picked us up at the Brussels train station in a very organic VW and we were off through the streets of Brussels in search of "jardins collectifs".

We visited four gardens in a few short hours, and they all were magnificent and exceptional in their own way. The first was a collective of about 5-10 regular gardeners who share space for vegetable, flower and fruit production, community composting and cooperative food distribution. The vegetable beds are raised and mostly support the dynamic accumulators of permaculture philosophy--plants who make nutrients available for plants in the soil. Medicinal plants, flowers and fruit trees and plants, including kiwi vines, also abound. While we were there, two people planted Jerusalem artichokes and another two brought in buckets of compost to add to the heap. When I asked the two gardeners if they had a plot of their own, they said, No, it belongs to us all.

The garden sports a greenhouse, a central pavillion and a composting toilet. I *actually* paid to use the bathroom at the train station, not anticipating that I would have such great facilities to use! Cyrille offered to lend me a book and a few minutes of private time if I want to just enjoy the experience anyway... The garden is next to a magnificent 19th century house with a large walled garden of it's own in the back. The garden houses several fruit trees, including two massive old cherries, beehives and until recently, a couple of goats. The house belongs to a grocery multi-national, which plans to expand. That expansion will destroy the gardens. Of course. The gardeners resist, but keep growing anyway.

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