On Yorktown Drive, directly across from a horse farm and a few lots from my front door thrives one of Wilmington’s new community gardens. Matt Collogan, Airlie Gardens’ manager for environmental education, is enjoying his first growing season. He’s been harvesting peppers, squash, and zucchini since May. Tomatoes are ripe on the vine, plus okra, basil and cucumber pickles. Corn is on the way. Even more exciting, Collogan’s homemade greenhouse, which will allow him to garden all year long, practice aquaculture with fresh water tilapia, and turn compost into fertilizer gold through vermiculture, aka the red wiggler worm.
A native of Silver Spring, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., Collogan chose Wilmington for the university’s environmental studies program, earning high honors and an eventual job with Airlie. The son of a national farm union activist, who fights for the small farmer, Collogan learned that the Cape Fear Arch, from Cape Lookout to Cape Romain, and the Wilmington area in particular, is rich in bio-diversity, with a fertile combination of soils, the largest river in the state and a latitude between zones 7b and 8. In other words, Wilmington has the climate for “the southern most of the northern plants and the northern most of the southern plants.”
“So all that translates into, ‘Wow! You can grow things here,’” Collogan said. “And this spot we’re in is a gem thanks to the great river effluvial soil.”
Collogan’s roommates—Aaron Harvey, a Growing Power advocate (a national nonprofit and land trust supporting people and their environments by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities) and Darian Richmond—have put their sweat equity into the quarter-acre garden, too. Together, with a host of other friends, they are ready to welcome a new roommate, Sara Quinn, service worker for FoodCorps.
Based on a nonprofit led by Curt Ellis (filmmaker of “King Corn”), FoodCorps provides the infrastructure and directly ties small farmers to institutional buyers, such as schools and health-care facilities. In keeping with FoodCorps’ principles, Quinn will teach children at Snipes Elementary School to grow their own vegetables for a healthy school lunch right on the grounds.
When she returns home in the evening, Quinn’s supper will include fresh produce and tilapia from Collogan’s garden and greenhouse.
Three concentric tiers of growing tubs in the shape of a large wedding cake sit on site. In the bottom tub, tilapia, all of which are fed the finest fish food, swim. Water and wastes from the bottom tank circulate up to a middle tub to feed a bed of organic watercress, every fine restaurant’s dream green. The tilapia wastes also circulate up to the top tub to nourish other seasonal vegetables, always in demand by the discriminating gourmand. This aquaculture demonstration will occupy one part of Collogan’s greenhouse, a 22 by 54 foot quonset structure made of six millimeter plastic and PVC pipe.
In another prominent area of the greenhouse, red wiggler worms will work their magic by feasting on compost, turning it into a rich fertilizer that can be made into a “tea” and sprayed or dripped on plants. The tilapia tank and worm composter are two examples of permaculture. Essentially, there’s no waste stream; everything becomes an asset.
Composted horse manure from across the street will be stacked against the greenhouse to provide warmth in the winter. Coffee grounds from java houses, mashed from local breweries, and household food scraps will enrich the compost. To irrigate it, among other parts of the garden, Collogan installed a state-of-the-art cistern—10K and huge. “Hey, it’s my drinking water,” he exclaimed. “I’m going to be here a long time.” PEX piping is attached to Collogan’s well house, and there’s a manifold with a valve for every row of crops.
A fan of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, Collogan is a big proponent of saving seeds that have not been genetically altered. Organic seed companies, such as Seeds of Change and Seed Savers Exchange offer a much wider variety of produce—purple tomatoes and orange watermelons.
In the most overfed, undernourished society in the world, the question seems obvious after talking to Collogan: Why are we content with such a limited selection of produce in our grocers?
“In the early ‘70s, the USDA took us down a road where the small farmers were hurt,” Collogan said. “Large dollar subsidies were given to the big farm conglomerates, which were producing massive monocultures (one crop farms). One crop farms are always prey to more pests, especially if genetically altered seeds are grown. Now, guess who makes the petroleum-based pesticides used on the genetically altered seeds fed with petroleum-base fertilizers? Right! It’s the big farm industrialists making all three products.”
A volunteer for Wilmington’s downtown farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, Collogan gives 90-minute presentations on permaculture to local garden and civic groups. He wants to share, organize and involve his neighborhood and the community at large.
“Eventually, our small farm will become a demonstration of sustainable agriculture techniques,” he said. “People will come, and we will exchange ideas and learn from each other. We vote every day with our dollar, so let’s vote for healthy food. It might cost a dollar more, but it will provide three dollars more of good nutrition. Also, your dollar saves fossil fuels by going to a NC farmer as opposed to a grower [elsewhere].”
Collogan has an attractive permaculture/gardening library and recommends several books, including Toby Hemenway’s “Gaia’s Garden” and Will Allen’s “Growing Power.”
Online, check out the “New Geopolitics of Food” in Foreign Policy and “The Consequences of Dinner” in the University of Virginia magazine. Also listen to food industry analyst Robyn O’Brien’s remarkable story on YouTube about her youngest child’s allergic reaction to fast food. And, grow your own garden even if it’s in a pot. Just one pot, it’s a start.