Workplace Garden Challenge: Swan Creek Community Garden is a marvel of global veggies and techniques

The garden was the first given at the start of Swan Creek Park’s master planning.

However the community decided to use the long, lovely swath of green and stream, the Salishan community garden would be part of it.

In 1992, it rose from the stony soil just inside the park at South 42nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Over two decades it has produced the taste of home for gardeners from all parts of the United States, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the old Soviet Union, South America and Africa.

It also brought people into the park, people who, by their presence alone, discouraged bad behavior.

“It’s a big part of the Master Plan,” said Doug Fraser, Metro Parks Tacoma’s chief planning manager. “It’s very important as an opportunity to make inroads back into the park.”

That involved heavy equipment last year. During the demolition and reconstruction of Salishan, the garden shut down but the blackberries didn’t.

“2004 was our last really big year,” said Sue Bernstein, who has helped manage it from the start. “People were moving out of that upper area.”

The garden went fallow in 2005. It reopened last year, ripe with improvements, compliments of voters who approved Metro Parks Tacoma’s 2005 bond.

There are water standpipes at both ends of the long rows. There are fresh layers of TAGRO and TAGRO mulch dug into the soil. Unlike the old galvanized fence, the new powder coated version will not drip dissolved zinc into the soil – and it has a mesh critter barrier at ground level.

Theurt Chhun and his wife, Phalla Chhun, were among the first to sign on for a 50-by-10-foot plot on the shy acre. They rigged a low arbor, and pumpkins and Korean cucumbers climbed all over it. They put up poles, and long beans favored in Cambodian cuisine scampered up them. They made a patch for lemon grass, and another for eggplant, and banana peppers. They grow the herbs for traditional pickles they serve with fish, and the greens for soup. They save seeds for next year.

“I pull out, cook and eat,” Theurt said of the veg. “I give to my friends. All the friends come here. We all talk together.”

Theurt walked 15 feet across one garden and arrived in Russia, rich with potatoes, beets, cabbages and beans.

“They are from Soviet,” he said of his neighbor gardener. “They plant different countries. They bring their own countries. Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Middle East.”

The garden is fully booked, with 57 plots, said Bernstein. She managed the old version, also perpetually booked, when she worked for Washington State University and partnered with Tahoma Food Systems.

The gardens were the draw when she worked with young people who later built their own community garden across Portland Avenue and sold their produce, and honey, at farmers’ markets. She has taught canning techniques to adults.

“Kids grew up in the gardens,” she said. “The focus was always on building community and family.”

And on hauling stones.

“When they were putting in the irrigation, they brought up a lot of rocks,” Bernstein said of the new garden. “A sea of rocks.”

That explains the broad pile of smooth river stones outside the gate.

Bernstein is leery of sharing the wonders of the Swan Creek garden. In the past, publicity has drawn vegetable thieves who don’t realize, or care, that the produce represents families’ food security.

Tacoma Weekly readers are better than that. Tacoma Weekly readers would not steal from the people Bernstein so admires.

“I keep thinking of garden stories, such as the grandparents of one garden family who are visiting from the Ukraine, and their joy of also working in the garden, and their anticipation of eating ‘clean potatoes,’ ones grown without pesticides. Ukrainian potatoes are especially laden with pesticides,” she said.

Last year, she met a Kenyan family.

“They were able to continue eating their harvest, taking the final frozen packages to eat just before the start of this garden season,” she said.

To the people who work it, this garden is as much a part of their budget as their paycheck. It is health, freedom from hunger, and a celebration of the diversity that makes Tacoma work.

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