Community Building Through Community Gardens

To say that community gardens are growing in popularity along the Wasatch Front is a bit of an understatement.  “Empty” parcels all over the valley are being repurposed to facilitate food production, and many groups have found that social connections are an added benefit to gardening as a community.

The Deseret News published a story about the social benefit of community gardening, and featured the Artspace Garden, a project that VODA was involved with last Spring.

Salt Lake County community gardens are as much for friendship as for the food

Published: Sunday, July 24, 2011 10:57 p.m. MDT
By Lois M. Collins, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Five-month-old Victoria hangs on her mother’s back as Noeline Sui picks little goats head weeds from the patch where she and her husband Laurence planted tomatoes. Close by, in the gravel-and-dirt lot tucked out of sight in this Canyon Rim neighborhood, Elise Michini clips weeds on a small hill, while Krishna Dhakal, 12, struggles to dig a hole in a rocky spot below.

Meanwhile, miles away downtown, Miriam Felton checks the moisture on the peas growing in a box she shares with her neighbor across from a TRAX platform, while behind the Artspace Rubber Co. Grace Wathen inspects her squash and bok choi.

Three different gardens, geographically and culturally quite diverse. But similar tomatoes and zucchini, sunflowers and onions, herbs and peppers all turning their faces to the sun.

They are all — people and plants alike — growing in these community gardens. What grows best in such a garden, in fact, may be the community itself.

There are dozens of community gardens in Utah and probably thousands across the country. They are run by churches, by nonprofits, by neighborhoods, by local agencies. It’s a concept that’s as well-embraced in the United Kingdom, Taiwan and Spain as it is Ogden and Boston and Denver, but it’s had a resurgence in recent years, driven partly by economic factors. The American Community Garden Association says that, besides the obvious benefits of making fresh produce more readily available and saving families money, community gardens beautify neighborhoods while reducing crime, preserving green space and creating opportunities for education and recreation.

These three gardens are part of the Wasatch Community Gardens network. Gardening was secondary to carp harvesting to feed the poor when the organization got started in the 1980s as Wasatch Fish and Garden Project, put together by Crossroads Urban Center to distribute fish at low-cost for food. It was spun into its own organization, but over the years the demand for carp waned, as demand for the gardens grew. Renamed Wasatch Community Gardens, the agency now has a hand in about 20 community gardens along the Wasatch Front, managing eight and partnering with groups that run the others, says Susan Finlayson, who works for Wasatch. The People’s Portable Garden on 900 South, for instance, is a partnership with the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency.

Historically, Finlayson notes, such gardens are opportunistic. “They crop up.”

The gardens feed hundreds locally. The Artspace garden has close to 20 households planting and harvesting; there are slightly more at Canyon Rim. They provide exercise and growing room for those who lack it. They are a “green” and beneficial use of space that might otherwise be a vacant lot or an impromptu dump site. But they are also gathering places where strangers get acquainted and work together and learn from each other. To promote that, Wasatch holds classes on topics like use of solar energy, water conservancy, even the benefits of raising chickens in urban environments, as well as teaming up with various groups to provide gardening experience to youths. Children learn about nature and self-sufficiency. The benefits of eating vegetables is not a hard-sell when a child has nurtured them and watched them grow.

“I am totally getting to know my neighbors,” says Felton, who admits she’s “mostly a private person” who nonetheless likes “knowing people from the garden, saying hello and swapping produce.”

The day that Allison Woodhouse arrived at the portable garden last year, she made a new friend who taught her all about planting and fortifying the soil. When another gardener’s husband became very ill, the others gardeners took care of her plants to ensure a fruitful harvest. “It is an awesome project that has given me a huge sense of community,” says Woodhouse, a Utah native.

Tuesday, the Canyon Rim gardeners had a weeding party, one of several work sessions this season. Some of the gardeners came to Utah after nearly two decades in a refugee camp in Nepal, having fled their native Kingdom of Bhutan. The Sui family, for example, are refugees from Burma, sowing and harvesting alongside American-born Christy Terrill and her son, Jack, and all the other gardeners. Such parties are organized by the group, the “governance” of the gardens decided by those who toil there.

Nicole Caldwell rented two garden plots to park her heirloom roses and irises while her nearby home was renovated. She says she’ll be back next year, even when her yard is done. “The person whose head is 50 yards from where you lay your head is someone you wouldn’t know” without unexpected meeting places like the community garden, she says.

Noeline Sui, an interpreter for the International Rescue Committee’s Salt Lake office, through which many refugees learn of the gardening opportunities, says the garden has been a good way to find friends.

Michini believes that anything that brings people to garden is “fantastic.” She’s working this particular plot of land, which is not in her neighborhood, because she knows Allison Rowland, the woman who looked at the vacant, weed-clotted lot abutting her backyard one day and wondered what it would take to turn it into something that helped others. Rowland got the ball rolling for the Canyon Rim garden, the land donated by a group of neighbors. Half the gardeners are refugees.

When Michini, from Sugarhouse, comes to weed every week, it’s “hit or miss” whether she’ll find people there. But she likes the planned group activities, like the weeding party. “I’m looking forward to the end of the season. We’re talking about a meal, each preparing different things we know how to cook.” It will be a multicultural event.

The Bhutanese gardeners are learning what grows in Utah and it’s different from what they farmed so long ago back home, then in Nepal, said Narayan Khanal, who is weeding the common areas with his wife’s sisters, Purna Maya Koirala and Devi Maya Dhakal. The food they grow will save them money at the store. They plant more densely than the others. “We were not sure what vegetables to plant,” he translates in very good English for his friend, Bali Ram Dhakal. Locals helped them decide.

Jon Schroeder’s handyman skills make him a popular addition to the garden and this night he’s putting a door on a small storage cupboard. He sets up and knocks down concerts and shows for a living. He gardens here because there’s no room at home, but “it’s nice to meet new people. This is another dimension to our lives other than our work circle.”

One Sandy neighborhood plans a yearly pumpkin festival from its community garden. They sell pumpkins and plow the money back into the garden.

The gardens are the product of more than the gardeners’ sweat. In December, organizers were planning the Artspace garden and Artspace development director Jackie Skibine says many people who had no intention of planting nonetheless showed up to build the boxes in the snow and meet new people. Blue Star Cafe donates fruit pulp and coffee grounds for the Canyon Rim compost heap; the weeding crew ate pizza donated by Big Apple Pizzeria. Local residents and businesses frequently support their communities’ gardens with such acts of kindness.

“I made new friends in the process of building the boxes,” says Sam Stinson, who lives in the Rubber Co. building and loves having zucchini, cuccumbers, tomatoes, kale, parsley, basil and peppers growing out back. He’s met others online on the Facebook Community Garden page. “They are friends online, with the possibility of a real friendship,” he says.

“I think it makes me feel more connected,” says Wathen, who owns a yoga studio and lives nearby. “Urban life can be a little cold.”

Skibine says Artspace plans to build a community garden at each of its housing complexes.

Lauren Call, who lives at Gateway, had rented an Artspace garden plot, but demand was so high she offered to share it. They text and coordinate and instead of dividing the box up, they agreed on what they’d plant and will share the harvest, no longer strangers.

Gardeners, Skibine says, “recognize the abilities of each other.” One might be good with power tools, another a natural designer. They quickly figure out who is dependable and can handle the water system for all of them…. They know each other from working and planning together.”

Besides hauling in soil and materials at Artspace, they built a ramp so it’s accessible to those who use wheelchairs. One, Timm Paxton, helped plan the garden and provided some of the tools they needed to build it. He sometimes lingers there, enjoying the quiet space in the heart of the city. He likes to bring music to the garden, he says.

Brit Merrill of Wasatch Community Gardens says some come, take care of their plots and go home. Others chat. Friendships grow alongside the vegetables.