CZ: Can you briefly introduce yourself and share with me how Q Gardens came to be?
AS: My name is Anne Schoeneborn. I moved to this neighborhood in 2012. Every day as I walked to the subway, I would pass what was then an empty lot. The lot was situated in a sort of problematic corner with people loitering around, drinking, and people throwing empty bottles over the fence. All of a sudden I started to see a lot of potential in this site to become a community garden. Part of the reason I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn was because I wanted to have a garden, but I had never been part of a community garden! This idea sent me down a crazy long path of learning about community gardens in Brooklyn and negotiating with MTA (Metropolitan Transport Authority) so they would allow us to turn the lot into a garden. There were many layers and working with lots of different people. Community organizing was a big piece. We wanted to make the planning process inclusive and participatory so the garden would benefit as many people as possible. It took about two and a half years of having community meetings, presenting to our community board, meeting with 596 Acres, an organization that provided us with critical advice on how to negotiate with MTA, which was very challenging because there was no clear process. But now we’re here, sitting in this beautiful garden with this being our third year in operation!
CZ: How did you determine the model for Q Gardens?
AS: We met with people from several different community gardens in Brooklyn. We learned that some had stricter membership requirements, which meant that they had long waitlists of people wanting to join the garden. Some required waivers to be signed in order to set foot in the garden, so this kept things very controlled and closed. We realized very quickly that we wanted to have the opposite model: anybody can come in and there aren’t really any membership guidelines per se. We try to be very inclusive, not hierarchical, etc. This past year, we established a group of garden coordinators who plan events, troubleshoot issues, and keep things developing. We try to have no real barriers to entry, so people can be involved however they want. This turns out to be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because new people show up at the garden all the time who are really excited and want to get involved; a curse because, for some of the ongoing tasks, it takes quite a bit of effort to keep people motivated. But this year, we’ve finally arrived at a happy place where we have four very dedicated coordinators who contribute a lot; whereas in the beginning, it felt like a lot of the responsibilities were on my shoulders.
CZ: Is Q Gardens your full-time job?
AS: No, and I’m really not the only one running the garden. I work in global health. I moved to New York in 2009 to get my MPH degree. All of my work in that sphere has been globally focused. I’ve lived in South America, Africa, etc. After finishing, I worked at the headquarters of a global health organization and, while the work was meaningful, the action was all taking place in far-away countries. Working on a hyper-local project like Q Gardens helped balance my work and was fulfilling on a whole new level. The community garden allows me to see change happen before my eyes, on my block. The garden brings together so many different things that I think are important: interacting with people from all different backgrounds, getting to know the homeless guys from Central America who hang out on the corner, growing your own food, learning about plants, and creating opportunities for people in your community to learn about growing their own food. Also, the composting aspect has been great. Q Gardens is one the most active compost gardens that I have seen. We now have nine active bins. Every year we’re taking in over nine tons of food scraps, which is crazy for a garden this size! Given the current era that we are living through, with climate change and rampant consumerism, it feels very cathartic to compost in the garden and help divert such a substantial amount from our local waste stream. Our composting operation is also fossil-free, unlike industrial composting, which relies on a lot of transportation. The compost that we produce stays in our neighborhood. Last but not least, the garden brings members of the community together. Elders stop by just to say hi. We also had one eight-year old Pakistani boy who turned up every weekend with incredible enthusiasm to help with whatever we were doing. The garden has also provided a space for people dealing with unemployment to come socialize and feel productive. It’s really a beautiful thing.
CZ: What is your role in Q Gardens?
AS: Well, I am one of the four garden coordinators. Initially, it was just me and Natalia. Natalia went through the Master Composter course at BBG (Brooklyn Botanic Gardens), which is a very popular course. As part of the program, they are required to do a hands-on community project. When we first met, Natalia was doing the course and looking for a community project, so we encouraged her to do it at Q Gardens. She has been instrumental in setting up and making our composting program as successful as it is. When the garden first started, composting was the backbone and actually has been the most organized piece of the garden thus far, because, from the beginning, we set up certain compost open hours hours for people to drop off their food scraps. Originally, the compost hours were the only regular hours that the garden was open. Even now, people know those are the hours that they can come to the garden and do their thing.
Lisa and Sarah just recently became coordinators, and they’re both huge assets. Sarah oversees the planting and plans workshops related to planting and harvesting, and she also knows a lot about pest management. Lisa is currently going through the Master Composter course, so she works closely with Natalia. I manage the beekeeping project that we just kicked off this year, which has been really fun. I have also done a lot with the rain harvesting system that we have, which has evolved over the years. I also try to foster the development of new activities at the garden. For example, I recently found out that one of our members is an Environmental Engineer, so I’ve been working with him to plan a workshop on soil micro-nutrients because that’s one area where we could improve our understanding and practices. I also try to be on top of reminding people when we will have work days, making sure we have agendas for our meeting, etc.
We recently “acquired” a new section of land behind the garden, and we put a lot of work this year into developing that into a native plant garden. I am also now on the Board of the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust (BQLT), which is the organization that signed the lease with MTA on our behalf. We are one of BQLT’s affiliate gardens (BQLT is now the landowners of 35 gardens in Brooklyn and Queens, along with two affiliate gardens). The reason Q Gardens turned to BQLT is because MTA required us to have liability insurance worth up to one million dollars. This is something that we, as a community group, could not afford, but BQLT has turned out to be a wonderful ally.
There are always new things coming up at the garden, and I work with my fellow coordinators to keep things moving forward. I am now a freelancer, which allows my schedule to be more flexible and allows me to dedicate time to both Q Gardens and BQLT.
CZ: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced since starting Q Gardens?
AS: Momentum. The compost program has taken on a life of its own, but in terms of the plant maintenance, particularly the watering, it takes a lot of effort to keep the momentum going. We have refined the way we do things this year, but gardening requires a lot of ongoing work! We’ve made an intentional decision to rely primarily on rain harvested water; we have a system with seven 55-gallon water tanks, all of which we we inherited from different gardens and that we finally managed to cobble together into a functioning system. We have a hose attached to the system now, but the water pressure isn’t great and a lot of the watering is still done by hand using watering cans. Holding regular meetings can also be a challenge because we have so much going on during the growing season. This year we only had a couple of meetings at the beginning of the year and a couple at the end. Another challenge is constantly trying to come up with ways to get people involved, because we constantly hear from people who want to contribute. We try to set things up so that it’s easy for people to get involved.
CZ: How does Q Gardens raise funds?
AS: It’s a group effort. For example, I was personally interested in bees and starting a beekeeping project. I started off by sending an email to our garden listserv to gauge interest, and tons of people responded positively. As a group, we then worked together to write a grant proposal. We have now gotten three or four grants from Citizens Committee. They fund the majority of community gardens and community projects in NYC. Once a year, you can apply and get up to $3,000, which covered most of our start-up garden expenses for almost two years.
Citizens Committee recently put out a new request for proposals that focuses on reusing/repairing/repurposing things, so we circulated it to the listserv to gather ideas. While we didn’t apply for a grant, since repurposing things doesn’t actually require much money, we came up with the idea of using the many plastic bags we acquire through our composting project to knit stuff! This is a project we hope to develop more in 2018.
CZ: What do you enjoy the most about Q Gardens?
AS: There are so many moving stories I could share about the garden. Every time I walk by the garden, I feel great. I think “everything looks so green, the raspberries are coming up!” etc. I also love being able to come down and help myself to herbs to use in whatever I’m cooking that day. We also have a lot of medicinal herbs, like this mountain mint. We are all learning from each other how to use herbs in different ways, I love coming down to harvest different herbs for making my tea that day!
I also love getting to know the many different types of people that live in this neighborhood. I was a Peace Corps in Africa, and I lived in a small village during my time there. There was where I first experienced true community and where I realized how much I love walking down the street and saying hi to every single person on that street. I feel Q Gardens has brought that same feeling to me here in NYC. I love knowing all of the people that live in my neighborhood; we all look out for the garden and each other. I see true community resilience through this garden.
CZ: How does everything work in the garden? What needs to happen for the garden to function?
AS: It’s a long list! We have several work days per month, plus 2-3 composting days each week. Composting on its own requires 12 volunteer hours per week. Natalia manages composting and does a lot of work on top of that by coordinating our compost volunteers and making sure we are always stocked with new wood shavings (as our browns). She also handles bin turning. Then there is all of the work associated with planting, watering, harvesting, etc. Our goal is to have the garden open 10 hours a week and to have those hours be regularly scheduled, so we’re currently crowdsourcing ideas for how to increase the total amount of time that our gates are open. We’ve been averaging one cookout per year, along with a fall fundraiser, and we’ve been doing a range of educational workshops as well, such as showing people how to start seeds at home.
CZ: How did you decide what to plant in the garden?
AS: One of our first meetings in the spring was to talk about planting, thinking about what went well last year and what didn’t and what people wanted to plant this year. This being a Caribbean neighborhood, a lot of the residents grew up farming. Some members have brought plants that are typical in their home countries, so now we have vegetables that I had never even heard of before! Callalloo is one example, and it is now one of our biggest hits. Community members love to come and harvest what the garden has to offer.
Sarah has played a huge role in terms of ordering seeds and helping guide our growing efforts. GrowNYC has a spring plant sale specifically for community groups, so every year that motivates us to get organized and decide what we want to order. Now we have a lot of established perennial plants, which is really satisfying. They come back by themselves, they don’t need that much care, and every year they grow bigger and better!
CZ: If you could change one thing about the current state of food, what would it be?
AS: Number one, I wish people would eat less meat around the world. I think if things like community-supported agriculture were supported at the policy level, instead of factory farms and industrial agriculture, we would be on a much better path. I wish there was more federal and state-level support for the development of healthy, local food systems. And support for more cooperatives!!
Anne Schoeneborn started Q Gardens, a community garden in the Prospect Park South neighborhood in Brooklyn. I noticed Q Gardens walking to my subway station, so I reached out. Anne and I met at the garden for a lovely conversation.
Anne Schoeneborn. Photo provided by Anne.