Leading with Nature

walking in partnership with nature


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Walking the Stalk: Leadership Lessons from the Garden

The community garden relies on goodwill and a chain link fence to protect the gardens.  My 17' x 30' plot is partly covered with plastic to keep weeds down while I slowly reclaim parts of the garden for production.

The community garden relies on goodwill and a chain link fence to protect the gardens. My 17′ x 30′ plot is partly covered with plastic to keep weeds down while I slowly reclaim parts of the garden for production.

One year into my tenure as a community gardener, as I unearth a tangle of mint and mugwort roots, I remember those distant first mornings digging up broken bottles and old shirts. When I first saw the plot and was informed it had “issues,” I took a deep and fearless breath, knowing that I love a good challenge. Being a corner plot close to a sidewalk in a densely populated residential neighborhood, my little rectangle of earth has long been viewed as a handy place to throw coffee cups and cigarette ends. And all plots, not just corner ones, have suffered from theft of the bounty: corn, tomatoes, beans, and peas.

In the first weeks as I piled up hitherto buried treasures (cast iron utility markers, plastic bags, and old shoes), I reflected on the community garden as an organization with physical and social boundaries. There were gardeners who were insiders, and people walking by who were outsiders. I wondered what I would learn about organizations, leadership, and myself during my adventures with weeds, seeds, soil, and the elements.

Seeking to Create New Dynamics

For one who adores sifting out roots and stones with her bare hands, happening on broken glass is a bit dangerous, so my first desire was to stem the flow of new trash in the plot. One obvious approach would be to strengthen the physical barriers: build up the four-foot, chain-link fence with chicken wire and other materials, and grow tall plants like morning glory vines, sunflowers, or climbing roses to create a barrier between my plot and people walking by.

Yet being a natural practitioner of polarity management, I suspected there would be complementary strategies that did not involve building barricades. (Of course, others may have already tried my complementary strategies to no avail! Our knowledge management system in the community garden is a bit haphazard!) So yes, the amended fence is increasingly un objet d’art brut. I also removed trash as soon as I found it, a strategy that is documented in The Tipping Point as a powerful way to encourage respect of shared spaces. And, I would take the seemingly opposite tack, and engage with those who may have been tempted to trash or filch.

My Experiment

Now, I will never know who exactly lifted last year’s corn harvest, nor do I care to know. (I am starting with the hypothesis that “outsiders” have been the culprits since the insiders have agreed to abide by an honor system.) So, I wanted to know something about the people who walk by and how they experience the garden. I went outside the chain link boundary and walked around the entire garden (made up of about thirty plots). On my side of the garden, walking down the sidewalk, sweetpea and sunflower greens leaned into the sidewalk space. By the end of summer 2010, one could hardly use the sidewalk due to larger-than-life foliage. As gathering places for trash and dead stems and leaves, the stalks were also quite unsightly: nothing much to enjoy or admire.

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