Lisa Büttner Talks About Building Community and Leadership Through Gardening
I wanted to learn more about CHEER’s gardening projects, an important and perhaps less noticed aspect of the organization’s work. Naturally, I turned to Lisa Büttner, who has spearheaded these efforts.
This interview has been edited lightly.
Would you tell us a little bit about the gardening that you do?
Since early 2021, I have had the pleasure of gardening with a group of women in three gardens that have been “loaned” to the group on private properties in Long Branch. We call ourselves the “Jardineras/Jardinières de Long Branch,” reflecting the multi-cultural make-up of our group.
The gardeners share knowledge about planting and harvest from our home countries of Cameroon, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and the U.S., and in the process have found joy through discovery of new flavors, culinary ideas and friendship. When we began planning our collective gardening, we created a long list of desirable crops that included universally desired foods like lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes, but also more culturally-specific crops, including chipilín, epazote, specific hot chilis, tomatillos, cilantro, hibiscus flower and okra. Several gardeners also found a new favorite leafy green, sorrel, which will be a staple in future gardens! Now even as the cold weather settles in, we still gather twice a week at the gardens because we have come to enjoy this time together.
How did the Jardineras/Jardinières group form?
We began with the parent leader group Conexo, which formed organically in 2019 out of CHEER’s leadership development work in Long Branch. Nearly all the Conexo members are or have been parents at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School (NHEES). The majority of the 13 members were interested in participating in a gardening initiative that formed out of a grant opportunity from the Montgomery County Food Council to address food insecurity exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. CHEER partnered with the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) to offer both container-based gardening workshops for participants interested in learning to grow herbs in indoor spaces or on a balcony or patio, and garden-based food production.
Given CHEER’s strong relationship with NHEES school administrators, we were hopeful that a Conexo garden group could plant culturally-appropriate crops in the large school garden built by the community, during school closure while the beds were unutilized. The group would then share the harvest with their families and other families in need, supplementing the food bags distributed weekly by CHEER at the school.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
Due to [Montgomery County Public Schools] MCPS COVID policy, we had to look elsewhere for garden space that would be accessible by foot for those gardeners without transportation. In addition, ANS and CHEER agreed to limit the container-based workshops to 10 participants. For both components of the joint initiative, we had to consider how to manage a group in a limited amount of space.
We explored the most logical alternative location for the garden-based work: the raised beds and space adjacent to the Long Branch Community Recreation Center; not surprisingly, this was also off-limits due to the conversion of the center to a men’s shelter at the onset of the pandemic. With Spring planting season upon us, we had to get creative!
To get early-season crops in the ground, we prepared and planted my own front garden. By the time we were harvesting radishes a month later, other neighbors had taken notice of our weekly gardening gatherings. Ultimately two more families offered their garden beds to our group. We are so grateful for their generosity! One of the gardens needed a deer fence. So we designed and built it with the help of the gardeners’ families. Because of our concerns about COVID-19, we have met either virtually or outside, and been mindful to keep our distance even outside. But despite the setbacks and obstacles, there have been many silver linings, from building awareness and relationships across neighborhoods, to the involvement of spouses and children, and the strengthening of commitments as we problem-solve together.
Why do gardening and CHEER interest you? What drives you?
I am motivated by the power of gardening to inspire awe in the miraculous process embodied in seeds; to nourish the soul as much as the body; and to compel anyone who tends plants from seed to harvest to be a steward of the ecosystems on which all life depends, starting with those closest to where we live.
There is something magical about putting a seed in soil and watching it sprout, then ultimately grow into something nourishing and delicious. I find the deliciousness is made greater not only because homegrown veggies are the freshest harvest we can eat, but precisely because I have patiently tended the plants from seed to sprout to maturity. I have gardened all my adult life, including in containers when I didn’t have access to a square of land.
After working internationally for 15 years designing solar photovoltaic systems for rural areas lacking electricity, I decided I might have a greater impact on the planet and on my soul if I acted on the principle of “think globally, act locally” and connected more directly with my community and with the earth. As I prepared for this transition, I could see clearly just how much I was influenced by the adults in my life during my preschool and elementary school years. I still remember planting corn when I was three, and deciding that solar energy was a necessary future when I was seven. Discovery and innovation are such powerful, unbounded forces at those ages.
But so many kids don’t have the privilege of these opportunities and influences. This was what drove me to work with preschoolers through City Blossoms at CentroNía in Langley Park and students at Rolling Terrace Elementary School to plant, tend, harvest and taste the fruits of their labors. I wanted to share the awe, the discovery, the excitement and the power that comes with knowing how things grow, where our food comes from, and why it is so urgent that this generation of kids builds a connection with the earth. Just as I believe gardening can transform a child’s life, I believe it can also be transformative for adults, so I am delighted to have the opportunity to work more now with community leaders, some of whom have deep agricultural background while others have little to none.
I am drawn to CHEER because of the way that it works within the community, getting to know our neighbors beyond simply their needs and rather as whole people, from their skills and knowledge to their passions and dreams. Building meaningful relationships establishes the trust that enables us to work together for change.
CHEER embraces gardening as a community- and leadership-building endeavor, starting with relationships and the sharing of skills and experience from our respective backgrounds. In the months to come, we aim to expand the cadre of gardeners who are ready to lead others in neighborhood-scale food production on a micro-farm if we and other partners manage to secure access to a larger plot of land.