Growing community of community gardens

Shared gardens busting out all over, and organizers say real bounty is friendship

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photo"The food is great, but what really happens is 10 percent gardening and 90 percent community." Dean Sutera a master gardner with the Washington State University Clark County Extension

(/The Columbian)

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Mentors, website can help you grow

Just like the veggies themselves, growing a community garden "takes major energy," said Carolyn Gordon, who volunteers with the Washington State University Clark County Extension. "You need a champion" to drive the effort and keep people inspired and active, she said. And that, like any volunteer-leader position, can lead directly to burnout.

That's why Gordon and others created the new Community Grown website. The site contains step-by-step suggestions, links and downloadable documents for aspiring garden leaders — like contracts between garden organizers and private landowners or neighborhood associations; itemized budget templates; and, of course, suggested garden rules.

What rules does a community garden need? Simple but crucial ones: Weed your own plot in a timely way, never letting weeds go to seed; work your own plot and don't touch anybody else's without permission; no pesticides and herbicides; clean common tools and return them to the community shed; lock the shed door and don't share the combination.

A community garden can resemble a residential neighborhood, Gordon mused: full of different personalities, different approaches and different levels of responsibility and focus.

The extension's community garden program, Growing Groceries, is planning a bigger, better garden training than it's had before, beginning in February 2014. Topics will include the nitty-gritty of growing food as well as broader organizational issues like saving money and working with diverse groups of people. Trainings are 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., one Saturday per month, February through May. The cost is $35 and includes the popular book "All-New Square Foot Gardening" as well as other take-home materials.

Learn more by contacting Erika Johnson at 360-397-6060 ext. 5738, or visit clark.wsu.edu/volunteer/gg. Johnson is also your contact if your existing garden is looking for a trained mentor.

The fastest, friendliest way to bridge differences between cultures is vegetables.

That means cultures of all kinds: Mexican and Russian immigrants and Clark County natives. Button-down executives and pierced, tattooed, bad-boy bikers. Ex-Marines and tree-hugging peaceniks. Upscale retirees looking to brighten their days and trailer-park dwellers needing to save some bucks. They've all taken to working Clark County dirt and sharing the food — and the joy — that grows there.

"It's the vegetables that brings people together," said Erika Johnson, Master Gardener coordinator for the Washington State University Clark County Extension. In addition to widespread and growing environmental and health awareness, Johnson pointed out that this remains a time of relative economic hardship, with middle and lower classes that don't seem to be enjoying any economic recovery at all.

Which is why community gardens seem to be sprouting up just about everywhere, she said. Cities and neighborhood associations, churches and schools, food banks and other nonprofit agencies — even apartment buildings and retirement communities are squeezing in miniature farms these days.

According to a detailed map at communitygrown.org — a website aimed at spreading the word and sharing expertise, launched by Clark County Public Health and joined by WSU Clark County extension — there are at least 85 community gardens in Clark County right now. And that's not nearly enough for all the people who want one, said master gardener Dean Sutera.

"The food is great, but what really happens is 10 percent gardening and 90 percent community," said Sutera, who volunteered to coordinate the Community Grown program after his experience launching a garden at his own church, Bethel Lutheran in Brush Prairie, proved to be so rewarding and community-building, he said.

Neighbors and needs

Two things sparked that effort. One, the Spanish-speaking church across the street burned down in July 2010, and Bethel Lutheran

invited the displaced people of La Iglesias de Dios de la Profecia (Church of God of the Prophesy) to worship over at their place. Second, some folks over the back fence — residents of the Country Manor manufactured home park — were in general need.

None of them, Sutera learned, had easy access to fresh produce, let alone a way to grow it themselves. So he drove the transformation of some vacant acreage alongside the church cemetery into a multifaceted community garden. Sutera paced off the property, planned the layout and sold the idea to his church: 16 in-ground beds, eight raised concrete-block beds and four extra-tall concrete-block beds reserved for "wheelchair gardeners." He figured he'd spread the word to the church's neighbors by email, but learned that few of Bethel's trailer-park and Spanish-speaking neighbors were wired. Snail mailers went out instead.

Huge response

The response was huge. For one thing, Sutera rustled up more than $10,000 in cash and material donations — including $2,500 from church members, a $1,000 matching grant from Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans, a $1,300 grant from the Master Gardener Foundation of Clark County and a $500 gift card from Fred Meyer, his former employer. Plus, $420 in garden bed fees. (It costs a whopping $15 per year to have a Bethel bed.) Those funds went for things like fertilizer and organic compost, concrete blocks and an underground irrigation line. Much of the labor — from the publicity to the tilling — was supplied by church members with skills and equipment.

"The real key to a community garden is creating partnerships," said Carolyn Gordon, former coordinator and ongoing volunteer for the master gardener program. "It's not inexpensive."

"It takes a surge of money up front," agreed Sutera. "After that, it's a matter of labor."

Nineteen out of the 28 beds at Bethel are now being worked by the church's neighbors -- plus, there are a handful of miniature beds for kids, too.

"Every night I come over and see how the cukes are coming up," said Jean Summerdorf, who scoots over from Country Manor on her motorized wheelchair. "It's exciting to come here. We've got cukes coming out of our ears." She returns with armloads of veggies that get distributed to her friends and neighbors.

One of the gardeners at Bethel is 17-year-old Eve Hanlin. She is the youngest person to become a master gardener as well as a gardening mentor through Growing Groceries, the WSU Clark County Extension's community-garden-training program. Mentors are available through the program to lend expertise of all sorts, and often do their own gardening, as well.

Hanlin moved around a lot when she was younger and said she never had the chance to get her hands dirty; now she is "fascinated" by what she's got coming up: pineapple tomatillos, New Zealand spinach, sorrel and flowering, peppery nasturtium. Elsewhere in the garden, Sutera pointed out many towering corn stalks and tremendous tromboncini — that's a hardy summer squash that can grow as long and loopy as the brass horn it's nicknamed for.

Down in urban east Vancouver, another church garden is packing in even more participants from the surrounding neighborhood: The backyard of Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church on East Mill Plain Boulevard has 34 plots that are tended largely by local apartment and condo dwellers with no dirt to call their own. Beautiful Savior tried to launch the garden a few years ago but quickly ran out of volunteer energy, according to organizer Dennis Kozacek; it was a $5,000 grant from the Kaiser Permanente medical office next door that really got things moving. An Eagle Scout project helped too.

Now, Kozacek said, the church's backyard buzzes with farmers on Saturdays, and the manager of the self-storage facility next door likes to sit in a rocking chair most mornings and keep watch over the garden. He's also volunteered his business's security guard to swing by regularly, deterring theft and vandalism.

"It took a while, but now it is a real community," Kozacek said.

Serious pride

The small garden boxes and flower beds at Ridgefield Living Center seem modest beside all that — but for the residents of this mental-health nursing home they have been splendid, according to administrator Nancy Cheek. "Small-scale is perfect for us," Cheek said. "I didn't think it would work, but this has been a fantastic thing for our residents."

They love growing the basics: tomatoes, onions, snap peas and strawberries. Much of it gets gobbled up on the spot, Cheek reported, but more gets donated to the facility kitchen and returned in the form of salads and other meals — a source of serious pride for those who grew it.

"We bring 'em into the kitchen and they bring 'em back to us," said resident John Hamilton.

"I like to do vegetables and I like to do flowers," said resident Susan Lawrence, ripping out unwelcome guests on a recent Tuesday. "I don't like to do weeds but these are strangling the flowers." Lawrence added that her mother, "a fantastic gardener with a big green thumb," used to grow prizewinning roses. Lawrence said she'd like to try that too. "I just like getting my hands dirty and remembering my mom," she said.

Sutera mentioned a new Vancouver nursing home, Elite Care at Sylvan Park, which has built a huge greenhouse with 40 beds for residents. The Quarry, another retirement complex, has "beautiful raised beds — it's just top notch," he said. Second Step Housing and the YWCA Clark County, nonprofit agencies that aid battered women and families, have installed shared gardens at many of their properties. Affordable Community Environments, a low-income housing developer, is using metal water tanks — designed as troughs for horses — as raised garden beds at its Gateway Gardens complex in east Washougal. Plans for a low-income Vancouver Housing Authority apartment complex on Southeast First Street center around a dedicated community garden space with a shed.

Most community gardens have an "overgrow" policy: if you've got too many veggies, bring your surplus to a local food pantry so hungry people can share the bounty.

"What gardening does for people who need some joy and some purpose in their lives is remarkable," said master gardener Fran Hammond.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.