Communal gardening

Living Green: Second in a three-part series
Sunday, April 22, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:05 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Claire Garden feeds the nine chickens — all with names — that she and the other members of the Terra Nova commune raise. Garden grows chickweed, curly dock and creeping Charlie to help feed the hens.

Family and friends have come to know her as Claire Garden, the pseudonym she initially used for her books. Now she is in the process of making it her legal name – one more befitting her life.

“Garden” was part of her last name, Van Wyngarden. And her first name, Carole, originated from the Germanic name Karl, which stands for “man.” As a feminist, she believes “Claire” better captures her spirit. In French, “Claire” means “light” and “clarity.” As an English teacher at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, she demanded clarity from her writing students. “Claire” also stands for understanding, which has been one of her goals — to understand the human experience and the environment in order to make conscious choices about how she lives.

7 tips for greener living

Here are Claire Garden’s tips on how to live a green life: 1. Insulate homes and water heaters. Keep thermostats high in summer and low in winter. 2. Buy from local growers, producers and shops. 3. Buy used and don’t buy anything you don’t need. 4. Replace lawns with organic gardens, trees, bushes, or low-growing grass or white clover. 5. Don’t mow, or use a manual push mower; mowers pollute worse than cars. 6. Replace inefficient vehicles and appliances with higher-efficiency models, like Energy Star-rated appliances. 7. Walk, bike, car pool and use public transportation whenever possible.

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Garden is a resident of the Terra Nova intentional community in Columbia. An estimated 400 intentional communities exist in North America, with almost 40 in Missouri. Once called “communes,” the communities are made up of people who choose to live together in concurrence with a shared set of values and lifestyle.

Terra Nova, or “new earth,” draws its four members together with the shared desire of living in an Earth-friendly way. It’s as good a fit for Garden’s philosophy as it is for her name.

Garden is not new to communal living. Now 69, she attempted to co-found a rural community in Kansas in the 1980s, when the movement was flourishing. Eventually, she joined East Wind, one of Missouri’s largest and oldest intentional communities, with about 60 members living together near Tecumseh, Mo.; they embrace egalitarianism as a core value. She met her second husband, Evan Prost, there.

Garden, Prost and fellow East Wind members Howard Fenster and Hoyt DeVane moved to Columbia in 1995 with the desire to live in a smaller community and be in the midst of Columbia’s campus environment. Fenster later left Terra Nova, and John Rippey took his place.

Garden retired in 2000 and continued writing novels about feminism, gay rights and other liberal movements, placing her characters in rural communes. Prost teaches physical therapy classes at MU. DeVane wove hammocks for an East Wind business but now works at Terra Nova, painting, cooking and gardening.

Rippey works for MU’s SOS Temporary Staffing.

The four live in two one-story houses — one red and one yellow — on Gary Street, situated on an acre and a half in the middle of town, just north of Broadway, west of West Boulevard. Garden finds the location ideal. She can walk to the public library, Gerbes on Broadway and the Farmers Market on Meadow Lark Lane.

Walking is Garden’s preferred mode of transportation. Organic and locally grown foods are Terra Nova residents’ preference. And if the choice is between local and organic, they’ll choose local. Transporting food 1,000 miles contributes to pollution, and money spent at locally owned businesses circulates in the local economy.

“We simply are doing the best we can to spend our money on things that are not bad for the planet,” Garden says.

Growing green

DeVane and Garden tend Terra Nova’s garden that boasts seasonal vegetables, including snap peas, salad greens, tomatoes, peppers, okra, onions, beets, chard, green beans, squash and cucumbers. They grow their year’s supply of garlic, which stores well. A greenhouse was added late in 2004, giving them winter lettuce and spinach, except when the weather is extremely cold. DeVane starts all their seedlings in the greenhouse. And they’ve planted three apple trees in the front yard, along with pear and other fruit trees and bushes in the back yard.

But the soil has needed some help to become garden-worthy. Over the years, the residents have collected leaves each fall, using them as mulch to enrich the soil. Each season, DeVane plans which crops to rotate to keep the soil healthy and chooses which varieties to plant. He no longer plants corn because one year squirrels ate every ear before it could mature.

“We thought, well, we’re not going to grow the sweet corn for the squirrels. So, we gave up on corn,” Garden says. “And we didn’t do well on potatoes, so we gave up that.”

And then there are the chickens. For them, Garden grows chickweed, curly dock and creeping Charlie, an aggressive ground ivy that is part of the mint family. The hens also like dandelion greens and insect-damaged leaves from garden salad greens.

It’s early February, with winter clinging fast. Garden puts on a warm gray jacket her husband gave her after he wore it for almost 20 years. Carrying a teapot with water, she walks along a snow trail that designates her daily path to the two chicken penthouses she built. They are connected by a 50-foot roll of chicken wire, which makes a tunnel that allows the chickens to run from one house to the other.

Garden’s coop holds nine hens, all with names. Five are Ameraucana hens: Blanche, Beige and three named for the herb garden where their house now stands — Ally (allium), Ory (oregano) and Fenny (fennel). The Plymouth Rock hen is called Pilgrim. The three Rhode Island Red hens are Carolina, Allspice and Myrtle, which she can tell apart only in good light because of the small black feathers in different places on their tail, back or neck.

“You gotta go out and get a drink or you’re gonna die,” Garden clucks to them as she pours warm water into their tins.

“They aren’t laying now because they don’t like this weather at all,” she says. “And Evan was noticing that their egg yolks aren’t any richer colored than the ones we could buy at the store right now.” With nothing fresh growing in the garden, their chickens get oats, the same feed as caged chickens, but without the hormones or antibiotics.

But come spring, the garden takes on a completely different look. The chickens peck happily in their penthouses. Spinach and lettuce poke from the earth. And Garden has returned to hanging clothes to dry.

If she had her way, the city would ban lawn mowing.

“We need to get rid of mowers,” she says in a soft but certain voice. “We’d have bushes that produce fruit; trees that produce fruit or nuts and gardens. And a lot of things that produce bird food, things that you don’t have to mow but that are food-producing either for people or for wildlife.”

As she heads inside one of the two houses through the greenhouse, she stops to gather some parsley to put on pizza. It’s Thursday, which is Garden’s night to prepare the community dinner. Since she is making it from scratch, she begins preparations at least two hours in advance. She spreads sourdough on the pans for two pizzas. She sautes onion, garlic and hamburger to ready them for the topping. If it were just the four of them, one pizza would do. But Fenster, their previous community member, is visiting tonight.

“What I have seen a lot of Americans do is waste half of the food that they purchase,” Garden says. “And we don’t waste anything. We do refrigerator management carefully so you aren’t going to find moldy things in here. It’s very rare for something to get in the back and forgotten. And the parts that we don’t eat, we take to the chickens.”

Producing independence

For Garden, a sustainable lifestyle is achieved through honoring the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle.

She still cleans her plate the way she was taught as a child born at the end of the Great Depression. During her first marriage, she followed her mother’s advice when feeding her own three children: “I’m not going to put any food on your plate, and you don’t have to eat anything that I cook. You can make yourself a peanut butter sandwich if you don’t like what I make. But if you put it on your plate, you have to eat it.”

To hold true to that now, Garden goes grocery shopping with a list. She usually buys used clothing and wears things for a long time. The same goes for dishes, pans, kitchen utensils and most of their furniture. The kitchen table was bought at a friend’s yard sale; the occasional tables in their living rooms were built by her son. And Garden jokes that Terra Nova is a closeted TV community. She means it literally: the TV is kept in a closet, which is opened only to watch a DVD once or twice a month.

Rippey handles recycling for the community, separating trash into recyclable items and composting food scraps. None of the members drink soda, but they keep a recycling bin for cans; on his walks, Prost picks up cans people have thrown in the streets.

While most of the group’s Earth consciousness is centered at home, Garden recently joined the city’s visioning project, “Imagine Columbia’s Future.” One of her ideas: taking a “block-by-block” approach to sustainable living by supporting food production in every neighborhood with neighbors sharing and trading excess produce.

“Think how much food and flowers we could produce in Columbia if we replaced almost all our lawns with gardens and orchards,” she says.

“We need to change a lot of things,” Garden says. “When I lived off the grid in Kansas, I was as food independent as I’m hoping Columbia will be.”

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