Community Gardening Comes Alive on St. John

St. John Community GardensLast year I wrote an article about the unavailability of fresh produce in the Virgin Islands. The story went viral with over 17,000 people reading the blog and 2,500 sharing it on social media.

Although my readership was greatly increased, which was a positive outcome, I was in for a rude awakening.

The backlash was explosive. Many people commented that I didn’t understand the culture of the islands, and though I was right on some accounts, I didn’t get the big picture.

While it is true that locally grown produce is hard to come by, particularly in my small corner of the VI (St. John, Coral Bay), what I failed to realize was how important growing food is to Virgin Islanders. I didn’t factor in that farming and eating locally is a huge part of the history, culture and is the pride of many people here.

Beyond our mainstream growers, Rastafarians, although not as prominent as in Jamaica, are a presence in the Virgin Islands. A primary tenet of Rastafari practice is Ital (vital with the V removed). This means to keep the body as virtuous and temple-like as possible by eating and growing only organic fruits, vegetables, grains and often, cooking with no salt.

St. John Communiy Gardens Pigeon PeasOverall, growing food is difficult in the Virgin Islands. The soil is depleted and rocky in many areas and the availability of fresh water is inconsistent at best. Many European varieties of fruits and vegetables are impossible to cultivate. However, we do grow food in tropical abundance. Ever heard of moringa or pigeon peas? How about soursop or genip? If not, I’m sure you’ve eaten bananas, coconuts, pineapples, and mangos.

With new eyes, I saw what is available locally. I learned what techniques could be used to overcome our environmental limitations; the many comments posted by Virgin Island growers educated me. Instead of complaining about the expensive, bland, and genetically altered products carried by most larger grocers, I’ve shifted my focus. I learned from the feedback on my oversimplified view (now corrected) and have become a force for positive change and organization.

When Colleen Brooker, owner and operator of Passiflora Gardeners, approached me about reviving the languishing community garden projects on St. John, I jumped at the chance to help organize and promote her efforts. With her degrees in anthropology, her master’s thesis on sustainable agriculture solutions for the Virgin Islands, certification in permaculture and agroforestry, and over a decade of experience growing both ornamental and food plants and trees in the Virgin Islands, Colleen, in my opinion, is one of the most qualified farming and gardening educators on St. John.

St. John Garden Fair

St. John Community GardenTogether, Colleen and I developed a plan to create a day of education and celebration of Virgin Islands Agriculture. What enfolded from there was a lightening strike of serendipity.

We approached Raymond Thomas, director of the Coral Bay Agricultural Center about our idea. He told us that he was looking for an event for National Agriculture Week and that what we proposed was a perfect fit. The St. John Garden Fair was born, to be held this Saturday, March 25th.

Enthusiasm for the idea spread and soon the list of presenters was filled with the all-stars of the St. John farming and gardening world. First to join was Colleen’s business partner Irvin Stevens, one of the most intuitive and talented gardeners on the island.

Next to join the lineup was St. John Historical Society’s Eleanor Gibney. Eleanor worked for Caneel Bay as the resorts chief horticulturist for over 15 years before she retired to raise her family. She is an expert on the indigenous and cultivated plants of the Virgin Islands, and the author of A Field Guide to the Native Trees and Plants of East End, St. John.

Ital Delroy Anthony signed on, whose love and passion for tradition and culture has won him the title VI Cultural Ambassador. Ital is known for his three part program which he has been teaching for the last 10 years at VIERS, where children and young adults from around the world come to learn about the Caribbean environment.

Raymond Thomas and Eugene Brady of the Agricultural Center will give tours of their facility and demonstrate beekeeping and grafting techniques.

Annie Caswell and Mary Blazine of Project Green Up, the mid-90’s to early 00’s after school gardening program at the Ag Center, round out the schedule of a full day of presentations from 11:30 AM to 4:30 PM.

Beyond the classes and workshops, kid’s activities; craft vending; local produce stands; a plant sale and more are part of the day’s events.

The Kids’ Learning and Community Garden Projects

Coral Bay Community Gardens

None of the presenters wanted to charge directly for their workshops, instead they plan to raise funds and awareness to breathe new life into St. John’s community gardening scene. The Kids’ Learning Garden to be located in Coral Bay is named one beneficiary. This program will be modeled on the now defunct after school program Project Green Up and the highly successful gardening program at the Gifft Hill School.

Programs like Project Green Up have had a far-reaching impact on our local economy. Several alumni of Green Up now own and operate top restaurants in the VI. These chefs and restaurateurs source from their own kitchen gardens and buy from local growers and suppliers. Learning these practical skills and the respect for farming continues today through the Gifft Hill EARTH program. The program’s mission is to integrate gardening education into the private school’s curriculum to sustain a burgeoning farm to school lunch program.

Gardens Caught in Island Bureaucracy

Another purpose of the Garden Fair is to raise awareness about the unopened gardens project on the government owned land behind the Coral Bay Agricultural Center. The first meeting between the VI Department of Agriculture and the Community of Coral Bay regarding the land was in 2007. In 2010 a plan for the Coral Bay Community Garden Project was approved, a ground breaking ceremony was held, and the two acres of land was parsed into quarter acre plots and granted to experienced growers – Colleen Brooker, Ital Delroy Anthony, Carol Berkowitz, Maureen Castell, Paul Samms, Jackie Klendenin and Peter from St. Lucia.

A strong showing of community support can get this project out of the mire of VI government process; now over a decade in coming. At the St. John Garden Fair community sign-up table, resources will be available. You can sign a petition to urge Carlos Robles, Commissioner of Agriculture, to expedite the Coral Bay Community Garden Project. The petition is also available online here.

A former UVI staff member writes,

“Agriculture sustains life and culture of a people. St. John already has lands that are preserved and conserved for different uses. Coral Bay Community Gardens with, for and by the people, especially for our children, is important to sustaining and maintaining balance on St. John. Agriculture contributes greatly to our restoration of our shared culture, heritage, traditions and humanity.”

You’re invited to join the conversation! Did you grow up growing food? Do you believe that farming is a vital component of the Virgin Islands culture? Do you want children to know the importance of farming? Share your comments below.


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Catherine Turner
Catherine TurnerCatherine Turner is a freelance writer and editor formerly based in the Virgin Islands. Her contributions have appeared in many publications including the St. John Tradewinds, Caribbean Travel and Life, Onboard Online Magazine, and the Elephant Journal. In a former incarnation, Catherine was a nightclub owner and a resort showgirl. A lifetime ago, she spent a decade chained to a desk as a computer programmer/data analyst. Catherine recently completed her first novel Carnival Carib. See more of her work at catherineturner.media
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9 Comments

Doug White

Right On!! Great article! Everyone says you can not grow food in the VI because we have poor soil and little water. But if we start composting (both home & municipal), 20% of our waste stays out of the landfill to be used to enrich the soil and provide”green jobs.” If we start managing our storm water runoff properly and stop trying to get it down into the ocean as fast as possible (to kill the reefs) and start channeling it back into the groundwater aquifer and storing it for later use, we have plenty of water also. Thank You for organising this event to kickstart community gardening on St. John!

Catherine Turner

Great points Doug! Thanks you. I just got a suggestion and I’d like your feedback. It was proposed to me that soil from hillside construction sites (good topsoil) could be moved to bottomland gardens instead of being pushed down into guts where it runs off into the bay. I don’t have any idea if this is feasible or of the environmental impact of doing this. What are your thoughts?

Doug White

Catherine,
Thank you and Colleen so much for organizing such a wonderful event yesterday to kick start (again), as Mary B pointed out, community gardening on St. John! It was very encouraging to see so many people in attendance! Bravo. To your point about topsoil being pushed into guts. There is absolutely no good reason to push any kind of soil into a gut, especially not nutrient rich topsoil! All soil from construction sites (from sustainably designed buildings) should be retained on property and used to build downslope diversion berms to keep stormwater out of the ocean and to filter onsite stormwater back into the groundwater and to stockpile excess soil on site for a future home garden. Certainly excess topsoil (an oxymoron in the VI?) could be transported to flat land farming areas.
I look forward to next years event and to a tour of the Coral Bay Community Garden in bloom!!!
Thanks again!
Doug

Jeanie Williamson

Raising four children on St John in the 90’s with the garden program, I can first hand tell everyone how wonderful and important programs like this are. Having loving people guide our youth in producing edibles heals, nurtures the body and spirit of our youth and this feeds over into healing and nurturing our community. The thought of even a week or month, let alone years of missed opportunities of reaching out to our youth and our adults with the opportunities these community garden spaces could provide is heart wrenching. Please, everyone, lend your help in making this happen. Everyone will benefit.

Catherine Turner

Thank you, Jeanie, for your wonderful support! The petition is working! We are at least one step closer to the gardens opening. Announcements to come!

Joan Wilson

I am excited to see a renewed push to establish the gardens in Coral Bay. I attended the “opening” ceremony in 2010. I plan to attend the Garden Fair on Saturday. Wondering if there is a schedule of sorts for the workshops.

Catherine Turner

Hi Joan. I just got some exciting news from the Commissioner. Waiting on some confirmation, but we are at least one step closer to the gardens opening. Here is the schedule:
11:30 Colleen Brooker & Irvin Stevens – Permculture/Argoforesty Workshop
12:30 Eugene Brady – Beehive Demo (30 min)
1:00 Eleanor Gibney – Native Tree Presentation
2:00 Ital Delroy Anthony – Bush Talk
3:00 Annie Caswell – Crafting Natural Products for Your Home
3:30 Raymond Thomas – Grafting Demo (30 min, downstairs)
4:00 Mary Blazine – Creating a Community Garden
Surfer Gary – Palm Weaving Demo (downstairs)

Gary Ray

Yes, Catherine, that road excavation overburden should always be transported to flat land and reused, rather than shoving it downslope. If you sieve it to remove rocks and mix it with municipal-scale compost, you create an exceptional agricultural soil, as Doug mentioned. We will soon be producing compost in great quantities at Susannaberg and at the proposed “Coral Bay Recycling Center”– a new initiative from Island Green in collaboration with Waste Management Authority.

Radha

It’s wonderful to hear how successful the community gardening event was! Kudos to all the presenters and those who participated. Keep up the good work! Our children will benefit, as will we all.

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