Gardening for the planet

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Suzanne Breder is still greening her thumbs, but the city dweller already has a green consciousness.

“It is an awakening really, a realization that we – people – just can’t con- tinue on our current course, whether you live in Chicago or Milwaukee or Beetown,” says Breder, who lives in Kenosha. “For our sustainability, for the planet’s sustainability we have to learn to love and live with the land.”

The 29-year-old Breder and her partner are two of nearly 998 million people who pledged to A Billion Acts of Green. The couple’s pledge, made on, is a simple one – to plant a garden on April 22, the 42nd anniversary of the eco-holiday pioneered by former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis.

Nelson, for some years, had wanted to turn attention in the United States to the environment. In 1970, when the first Earth Day took place, Americans burned leaded gas in massive V8 engines. Factories belched smoke and sludge. Air pollution signaled prosperity. But, with the work of politicians such as Nelson, scientists such as Rachel Carson and a growing network of activists, there was an emerging consciousness about caring for the environment.

Nelson, looking back, would one day say that Earth Day organized itself. An estimated 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day. This year, under the theme “Mobilize the Earth,” at least a billion people were expected to get involved in events and activities planned at local, national and international levels. A march and rally were set for the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and, beyond the beltway, organizations were scheduling rallies, marches, lectures, community cleanups, recycling drives, environmental fairs, repurposed art shows and documentary screenings.

Many Earth Day events tap into the ever-growing “growing” campaigns, initiatives that intentionally blur the distinction between gardening and farming. Gardens can be much more than a fence-line of hydrangeas, and farms can be much less than acre upon acre of soybeans.

So, for Earth Day:

• Students were planting gardens for the herbs and vegetables in their lunches.

• Neighborhood groups were planting community vegetable gardens to feed families, supply homeless shelters and sell at market stands.

• Families were creating sunny spots at home – in the yard, on the patio, on the roof, even indoors – to establish food gardens or urban farms. 

Growing your own

“It is becoming an option for everybody to grow their own food,” says Gretchen Mead, founder and executive director of the Victory Garden Initiative in Shorewood.

The Victory Garden Initiative, which gets its name from the community gardens of WWI and WWII, conducts:

• The Fruity Nutty Campaign to promote the planting of fruit and nut trees to create food forests in city parks and neighborhoods. VGI’s goal is to plant more than 1,200 trees.

• The Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz, which takes place in May and involves planting raised garden beds in partnership with the Urban Ecology Center. For the fourth annual blitz next month, agricultural giant CNH has donated $20,000 as well as loading equipment, Purple Cow Organics has donated compost and soil mix, the West Allis Health Department is sponsoring the installation of 25 gardens and the City of Milwaukee is offering up to 50 discounted gardens. Organizers hope to plant at least 300 gardens.

• The Garden Mentor pro- gram, which trains volunteers who train other volunteers in green techniques.

• The Urban Permaculture program, which includes a course and certification in the design style.

• The Food Leader Certification Program, which pro- vides instruction in growing food and also lessons in food distribution.

• The Lettuce Help You Grow Food campaign, which involves teaching people sustainable gardening techniques and planting gardens.

“Every person, in every household, can connect to their food source, through the act of growing it,” VGI’s vision statement reads. “This act reminds us that we are of the Earth, that we cannot live without the Earth, that our needs our met, not by the economy, but from the Earth. Growing food will reintegrate us with deep ecology, guiding our culture towards a sustainable, abundant future, freed from financial inequalities.”

VGI envisions a time “when food pantries house vegetable gardens and school children participate in growing their lunches” and “we will have a secure, sovereign, socially just and sustainable food system.”

Mead was working as a behavioral therapist for Aurora Health Care when she founded VGI in 2008. “There’s an overlap,” she says of the two jobs. Food – the quality and the cost – is a major issue in social work in the United States, where about 14 percent of the population experiences “food insecurity” and where, in lower-income neighbor- hoods, 70 percent of food dollars might be spent out- side the community.

People growing their own food, Mead says, is about empowerment, sustainability, vitality and community.

“It’s so important that we are all participating in the production of our own food,” she  says. “The act of growing food changes the way people think. ...We install gardens at peoples’ homes, and gardening becomes a part of their everyday life.”

Mead, who describes her- self as a gardener, an environmentalist and a foodie, has her own vegetable garden, which provides for the family table, plus produces enough for sales at the local farmers’ market on Saturdays, as well as donations to pantries.

Mead is scheduled to talk about the “good food movement” in Milwaukee on the Stonewall Stage at PrideFest on June 9. She’s still working on her presentation, but plans to focus on fostering an urban agrarian society in the city.

Mead connected with PrideFest organizers through Denise Cawley of Circore Creative, who says she’s doing what she can to grow enthusiasm for the garden initiative in the LGBT com- munity.

“I sincerely dream of a time when the Victory Garden Initiative is installing gardens for the LGBT com- munity all over Milwaukee County,” Cawley says. “We have people who are hungry in the LGBT community who would benefit from fresh homegrown food.”

With programs such as VGI, the wannabe farmer doesn’t need to say goodbye to city life to create his or her green acres.

But some sow that seed.

Green acres

“Farming, it gets you outside, keeps you more active. And it’s more wholesome. You are eating better food. Whole, natural food,” says Courtney Skeeba. Twelve years ago, Skeeba and partner Denise Whitesides purchased a 3-acre farm, which they named Homestead Ranch, outside of Lawrence, Kan.

“We had worked in natural foods for some time, and we had the idea to lower our impact on the environment and create a sustainable food source with the farm,” Skeeba says. “We            just wanted to try our hand at it.”

Their know-how came from talking with other farmers, working on other farms and “reading a lot of books.”

The women grow vegetables and berries and raise chickens and kids – as in a human child and nine goats. Skeeba, who recently retired from the U.S. Postal Ser- vice, is now working the farm fulltime while her partner attends nursing school.

“It’s pretty much a green day every day here,” she says. “I think it’s important. So I try to live my life accordingly.” The farm produces enough fruits, vegetables, eggs and milk for the family’s table and for sales and trades at the

Lawrence farmers’ market. “We make enough at the market to be in the black,” says Skeeba, who also sells goats’ milk skin creams and lotions on the Web at Farmer’s markets are where many people find the inspiration to grow good food themselves. Breder says going to her local market has become a way of life in the summer. Now she hopes her family can also bring its own fresh produce to the table.

Maybe, she adds, the family eventually can sell some of its harvest, like the Homestead Ranch farmers do in Lawrence, Kan., and like Mead does in Milwaukee.

“Ecology is the new economy,” Mead says.

On the calendar

What: Garden Installation Blitz. When: May 19-26.

Where: Throughout Milwaukee.

Who: Victory Garden Initiative and an army of volunteers and sponsors.

Why: To install hundreds of vegetable gardens in yards, businesses, schools, churches and community spaces.

Web:, where people can purchase gardens, donate for a garden or volunteer to help create gardens.

“You can help by donating gardens to those who can’t afford it or offering your expertise and service for the event,” says VGI executive director Gretchen Mead. “This year, we especially need trucks to move soil. This is a grassroots movement to grow more food for a nutritious, sustainable food system. Real change, one garden at a time. Help us plant as many food gardens as possible throughout the city in one week.”