Features and Occasionals

Cultivating the Art of Gardening

By Katherine Pioli

“I was eating the cheapest of chain foods,” recalls Michael Cundick. Fast food and ramen. Awful stuff, he says. Another life, only four years ago, on tour with his self-described experimental indie punk rock band LOOM!. “And I didn’t think too much about it.” He adds, “I’m a very single-minded person.” This apathy for food, this fuck-the-man attitude that’s more than just anti-political, anti-corporate, anti-establishment, is, in Cundick’s assessment, a generational problem and one that he shared until his “conversion.”

While on tour that fateful summer, Cundick happened upon a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilem­ma. Having never before picked up a gardening tool or pulled a carrot, he suddenly saw the unhealthy food culture he was a part of. Bad food, it seemed, could be found at the center of every problem. Good food, he determined, could be the cure to every social ill.

And so, without any experience in activism or even volunteering, Cundick took his revelation to his artist friends in Salt Lake—musicians, jewelers, opera singers, painters, and dancers—and founded Artists for Local Agriculture, an open, non-exclusive advocacy group and social gardening community that encourages positive food culture and is growing into a force that is coloring our city with food and with art.

The group’s main gathering spot, the Utah Arts Alliance (UAA) Art Garden, lies amidst the nightclubs, train tracks and homeless shelters deep in downtown Salt Lake. Surrounded by a 15-foot-high chain link fence, the property has a modest and appropriate look for the neighborhood. The 300-person-capacity space holds a stage large enough for a 10-piece band. A colorful mural stretches 40 feet across the cinderblock side of an adjacent building, there’s a giant mosaic bumble bee and, here and there, mounds of garden beds crossed with plants and irrigation tubing.

These days, AFLA manages eight gardens. Most are former lawnscapes converted to food gardens—with tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and more—at the request of the property owner. (CATALYST featured an AFLA-managed garden in August, “Garden is Saved”). Weekly maintenance parties draw the organization’s growing force (their Facebook pages has over 2,000 likes) of young, urban volunteers, most of whom are millenials or gen-xers, to the gardens each week to weed, plant and harvest as a group. Gatherings often include time for mingling, shared meals, and occasionally yoga. The reward for everyone, besides spending an afternoon with friends, is getting a share of the harvest; produce is divided among the homeowner, the volunteers and homeless shelters in the city.

Most other AFLA gatherings, concerts and workshops happen at the UAA Art Garden, the place from which AFLA spreads its nectar to the rest of the city.

“We want to be at the forefront of Salt Lake’s food community, bringing permaculture into people’s vocabulary,” says Jenny Frodsham, AFLA board member and community director, as we tour the garden. Most of AFLA’s board members come with at least some background in gardening or farming. Frodsham worked until recently as an educator at Red Butte Gardens and studied landscaping at BYU. As a group, the board’s diverse knowledge and skills make AFLA an effective multifaceted organization.

“Permaculture,” an agricultural term coined by teacher and biologist Bill Mollison in the 1970s, describes a sustainable planting system that mimics self-perpetuating natural ecosystems. For ALFA, explains Frodsham, permaculture also means building both lasting food systems and lasting communities, a permanent culture, through arts, garden­ing and community gatherings. “We are artists,” she says. “Creating culture is what we’re good at.”

For the last four years, the art part of that equation has taken a back seat to the preparation of gardens and the hands-on workshops training members who, much like Cundick, have no gardening background. With eight gardens in good working order, AFLA is now in the early stages of developing a new garden art project called the Lighthouse.

The Light­house is projected to be a functional art installation in each AFLA-managed garden. Each lighthouse will exhibit a look unique to its artists, and be useful, as well: Picture a five-foot-tall structure with a seven-inch touch screen computer behind a sliding door at the top, says Cundick. On the outside it looks like a nice garden sculpture. But swipe the screen and you’ll find all sorts of data running through the internal wiring. A camera on the miniature tower, set to snap shots every 60 seconds, will be compiling a season-long timelapse video of the garden’s evolution. Sensors monitoring temperature, pH and moisture levels will not only keep records of what’s happening, but potentially even alert a volunteer, or an automated watering system, that it’s time to take care of the plants.

Long term, says Cundick, the lighthouses may act as a community message board and trading post. Volunteers will be able to log how many hours they spend at the garden. Some day it might also help manage a tool-sharing service, with people signing out equipment through the lighthouse database.

Cundick feels people are still waking up to the ways in which food and food production affect us individually and as a community, but says he’s seeing more awareness. “I believe artists develop their brain in a way that can allow them deeper understanding,” he reflects. “As people who can attract audiences and have a wide range of influence, we are in the perfect position to have our ideas heard and acted on, more than the average citizen.”

This autumn, members of Artists for Local Agriculture installed two new gardens, one at the request of a homeowner and another for a downtown restaurant. In late September they held a “barnraiser” (“like Kickstarter, only better”) to fund a greenhouse. Two events are planned for this month. If this busy season is any indication, it seems that AFLA’s nectar is spreading.


October events at the UAA AFLA garden

Oct 17: First Annual Snowbrush Herb Festival
This festival, co-hosted by AFLA
and Hazel Witch Apothecary, is in
celebration of Utah’s lesser-known native herbs. It offers an opportunity
to learn more about AFLA and to
participate in hands-on workshops. Learn about the unique qualities of these local herbs and how to use them in food preparation and for medicine. Like most AFLA events, this will have a fun mix of education and great musical entertainment. Family friendly.

TBA – Halloween Show
Halloween at the art garden is a spectacle with music, aerial dancers, geodesic domes, art and more.

Both events are free and open to the
public. Check Facebook (We Are AFLA) for more details. Artists for Local Agriculture (AFLA), Community Art Garden at Utah Arts Alliance, 633 W 100 S.

This article was originally published on September 29, 2015.