In the low shadow of the Ortiz Mountains along Highway 14, huddled into the nook of a shallow valley, lies the tiny village of Madrid. Few trees survive here on this rocky, parched land. In fact, besides the piñons and junipers dotting surrounding hillsides and the spindly-armed cholla growing everywhere, the landscape is virtually barren. Once a mining town, Madrid's soil has been severely degraded for over a century. Piles of mining tailings towering at one end of the greenbelt attest to that. Grazing and flash flood erosion have also taken their toll. In the unrelenting glare of mid-afternoon sun, Madrid more closely resembles a moonscape. This foreboding environment is the last place you'd expect to find a community garden.
But the closest grocery stores are 30 miles away in either direction, Santa Fe to the north, Cedar Crest to the south, and as gas prices keep going up, it gets more and more expensive to make that trip. Any serious spike at the pump or a sudden national shortage of fuel would immediately impact life here in this determinedly unincorporated town, where many of the 300 or so residents are dependent for their livelihood on tourist trade. So the project of bringing a community garden-the epitome of grassroots-is being magically conjured this spring out of Madrid's rocky, inhospitable soil.
It's not a new idea. A one-acre allotment was set aside for a community garden back in 1975 by the original Madrid "pioneers," those artists and renegades who began filtering into what had by then become a ghost town after the mines closed. Recently, a smaller adjacent lot was added and donations for materials and supplies were made, including one especially generous one for $1,700, all the profits resident Chris Bodei made from his food-vending stand at the summer Madrid Music Festivals.
The first step toward making the garden a reality was to construct a 2,000-gallon, iron-reinforced cement water tank, designed by Carl Hanson, another local. "We cut the price in half by building it ourselves," enthuses Mark Bremer, one of the spearheads of the garden project. With the advent of an early spring this year, they broke ground on the plot ahead of schedule. "So far, we're in the concept stage of defining what to plant and where, designing and constructing beds, and integrating the garden with the proposed community center, which will be right next door."
The community center, something else the town sorely lacks, will also be a volunteer effort, most likely a straw bale building designed by residents knowledgeable in construction and paid for with money raised by doing benefits. It probably won't be ready until next summer, but by then, the garden should be in full swing. Water runoff from the community center will help fill the garden's storage tank.
Most of the organic materials for the garden have been donated by people around town-branches from trees they've pruned that were put into a chipper for mulch, manure from a large llama pen and several horse corrals.
In order to feed as many residents as possible, including distributing it weekly to those in need, the garden will have to produce much more than this summer's version ever could. But it's all a learning experience, Mark explains. "Right now, we just want to begin what we can in this growing season. That means establishing annual vegetables in prepared planting beds. I think the next step is to explore what's possible in the realm of permaculture (permanent agriculture)."
Why permaculture? "Because, once established, this type of garden provides for the least amount of maintenance per pound of food produced," Mark explains. "No tilling or fertilizing is required; soil erosion is nearly eliminated; and every drop of water that falls on the ground is entirely retained in the significantly expanded water-holding capacity that soil building and extensive mulching provide." What he's envisioning for the organic evolution of Madrid's community garden is a food forest, in which a very dense and diverse selection of edible plants is grown, providing food year-round.
In order to see a food forest in action, Mark booked the garden's core volunteers for a tour of Los Alamos resident Mary Zemach's garden early this summer. Created out of an ordinary suburban front and back yard (albeit with the removal of half her original driveway and several large elms), Mary's output is abundant. "With 15 inches of precipitation a year and at 7,300 feet elevation," says Mark, "she planted nut trees; full size, semi-dwarf and dwarf fruit trees, various currant and berry bushes, an incredibly wide variety of salad and cooking greens, and edible flowering plants as well as a diverse grouping of herbs."
The most laborious part of creating a permaculture garden is preparing the soil. Because a rototiller can't reach down that far, the top foot must be dug up by hand, mixed with organic material and mature compost, then replaced. "Just digging and preparing the soil for one acre will take approximately 500 person-days," Mark admits. "If 15 people get together on weekends, working both days, perhaps we could accomplish it in less than four months. Many folks have full-time jobs, children and other dependents. The labor and resource requirements are significant, but so is our risk if we don't plan for the future."
Mark himself is currently making plans to follow in Mary Zemach's footsteps. "I think it's important that I directly experience what's involved before I ask my community to take it on. So this year I'm transforming a quarter acre (his own yard) into a permaculture garden. I expect to cash one retirement account at a minimum to achieve this. And it's going to take all of my time." He pauses. "The best part is, I'm going to have fun doing it! I've been waiting for this opportunity all my life."
He's hoping that the trend will spread throughout the village. "Getting familiar with the concept of nurturing ourselves can be as easy as planting a few herbs in our window," says Mark. "Without examples of others doing this, it can all seem very daunting. The possibility of failure can stop us cold."
But he's convinced that as a few residents begin sharing their individual successes with the rest, more and more will dive in. "We each can plant what we dare!" he exclaims. "I think the most beautiful expression is to have a multitude of gardens all over town, inspired by our collective participation in a well-thought-out and successful community garden. Each individual can specialize in plants that are the cultivator's favorites. Perhaps Tandra grows her heirloom tomatoes that become her signature food grown in town, and she barters some for Cindy's specialty basil, Brandy's collard greens, Lisa's hybrid apples, Mike's hot and elegant peppers, and so on. The opportunities for distinctiveness in food diversity to be grown are as wide as the selections from the plants that thrive in our climate and the tenacity and inventiveness of its growers."
His own enthusiasm was born from spending summers on his grandfather's 100 acre-farm in the late "60s and early "70s, times he remembers as being some of the happiest of his childhood. He grew what he wanted, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables plus barley, corn and oats. All organic. He never liked pesticides. He would say, "They're designed not to wash off. "
Mark's mother, raised on this farm, knew the advantages of eating locally grown and harvested food. "She let each of us four kids into the kitchen to help with the family meal. My mom was a great and creative cook," and she passed her talent and enthusiasm on to her children. Mark's planning another of his make-your-own sushi parties this summer to celebrate the renovation of the kitchen in his miner's cabin. He calls sushi "the ultimate platform of delivery" for all types of food. "I love to wrap up pesto, sweet potatoes, marinated Portobello mushrooms, spinach and green, red and yellow peppers in those delicate nori sheets. 'Rasta sushi,' I call it."
He's looking forward to potlucks at the new community center, town-wide Thanksgiving dinners, and lots of other events starring food grown right next door and in yards all over town.
"What I admire most about my grandfather was his self-reliance. He didn't rely on a 1,500-mile line of supply for his food," Mark says. "I think establishing a community garden is the essential first step toward making Madrid self-sufficient. Once it's going and the community as a whole can see what's possible, I believe the whole idea will expand because it's infectious."
And, reflecting on the artistic nature of his quirky community, he adds with a smile, "Madrid scarecrows are sure to be inventive!"