You think Tacomans are good with grit? You should see what we do with dirt: We and our neighbors in Pierce County spin it into harvest gold. The proof is in the numbers that headlined our fifth annual community gardens summit Saturday at Gray Middle School.
In 2008, Pierce County had eight community gardens. In 2010, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland convened the first summit at Manitou Community Center and challenged us to develop the greatest number of community gardens per capita in the nation. Gardeners dug into the challenge and that year added a dozen new sites, for a total of 20 county-wide.
This year, we have 64 in the ground, with 12 more planned and a new name for the outfit running the whole shebang. Pierce Conservation District, which ran the Community Gardens Program, has rebranded it as HARVEST Pierce County. It's a good move, considering how the program has grown since that 2010 summit.
2010 was a year of figuring out how to pick sites, develop leadership, sort out maintenance and source supplies from water to wood to soil. The city was making an inventory of land it owned, but was neglecting. Making some of those sites available as potential gardens turned into a lemonade festival led by Community Gardens Coordinator Kristen McIvor.
People who lived near those initial sites started with the lemons. They had seen gardens pop up under enthusiastic leadership, then fail as organizers tired, moved away or got stuck with big water bills. Some of them had taken responsibility for mowing and shaping the city's property, were happy with what they had made and did not want to, say, plant blueberries in what was was a well-used play and picnic lawn.
In every case, the neighbors had to consider their options and figure out what they wanted. Food was a big deal in some parts of town, particularly those with low income and poor access to stores carrying fresh veggies and fruit. Some more affluent neighborhoods valued a spot to get together and tend fruit vines, trees and bushes. The one common denominator at each of those first gardens, and every one since, has been a stronger sense of community.
Growing community is as important, and engaging, and fun, as growing carrots and corn. With that demonstrated, the number and variety of new gardens blossomed.
The crummier the site, it seemed, the cooler the garden. A gravelly lot by an Interstate 5 retaining wall? How about murals of the Philippines on the wall and Asian veggies in the raised beds?
How about world-class okra jumping out of boxes of Tagro in an old parking lot? Or a Little Free Library at the gate? Or tomatoes exceeding expectations and invading the walkways? How about a giant cement newt watching over the whole dang enterprise?
That newt, by the way, lives in Gallucci Learning Garden just below the Hilltop. Part of its job is to invite neighbors in to see how a garden is done, so they can apply those skills at home in attractive, edible yards. Those 62 big gardens, and the 12 to come, are inspirations to make a more beautiful community.
They also are reminders that, just as one good garden leads to another, one success leads to another way to identify and use a new resource.
Saturday's main session showed how that has happened.
Strickland and Pierce Conservation District Executive Director Ryan Mello welcomed the 100-plus garden veterans then McIvor brought on the people who manage programs HARVEST has helped propagate, support and connect.
The Gleaning Project's Aaron Womack understands one of home and professional growers' great weaknesses: Sometimes we don't use everything our garden produces. Overwhelmed by tomatoes or squash, we'll leave food on the vine. Or the bush. Or the tree.
The 200-plus Gleaning Project volunteers have been remedying that. Farmers invite them to their fields to collect the food left over after harvest. People with fruit trees invite them to reach all the apples, pears and cherries and get them to food banks. Last year, those volunteers brought in 68,000 pounds of fresh fresh veggies and fruit to food banks. The total since the project started up in 2009 is 200,000 pounds of food that would otherwise have delighted slugs and yellowjackets.
“Some of those trees could use a little help,” said gleaner Beverly Bowen-Bennett of the new Fruit Tree Stewardship project, which teaches people how to control pests and prune. The healthier the tree, the better, and more plentiful the fruit.
The more plentiful the fruit, the more critical it is to get it distributed, and possibly preserved in good time.
Lila and Jen Hasson organized the Veggie Co-Op to share the wealth of produce. Master Food Preserver Hal Meng set up Save the Harvest to can it, dry it, and keep it safe to enjoy through the winter. Meng learned preserving skills and, thanks to a SPARKS grant from Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, bought equipment to teach canning classes and hold canning parties in certified kitchens, including Free Range Kitchen
But wait, there's more. In Tillicum, Stephanie Cholmondeley and her crew of volunteers are introducing kids to fresh fruit on the branch through the TREE Program. Renee Meschi of Forage Pierce County is collaborating with Metro Parks on creating a food forest and thinking of fungi in Swan Creek Park. And in DuPont the proud nerds of the Intel Garden have taken over as community volunteers since the chip maker left off. Having mastered soil chemistry, they're moving on to hydroponic veggie beds. Fish may be next.
Nothing is impossible in the Garden World of Pierce County.
List of new gardens for 2014 (so far!):
El Punto Community Garden (8317 Phillips Rd Sw, Lakewood)
South Salmon Beach Community Garden (Salmon Beach)
Food Forest at Swan Creek Park (E. 42nd and E Roosevelt
Salvation Army Neighborhood Garden (S 12th and Union, Tacoma)
Russ' Community Garden (N 41st and N Stevens, Tacoma)
Fellowship Christian Church (860 E 38th St, Tacoma)