Gordon Behnke started Tacoma’s oldest workplace garden 21 years ago when he amended the soil on half an acre on the Tideflats. That garden was on the city wastewater management plant property, near the facility where they were making a new product out of necessity. With the treatment plant on the Puyallup River’s entrance into Commencement Bay, and some 200,000 people flushing and showering into the city’s sewer lines, engineers had to come up with a way to get the biosolids out the wastewater.
Through the help of hungry high-tech microbes, they figured out how to turn sewage into soil they suspected would be pure enough for farming. They named it TAGRO, and they sent it to the state and feds for testing. If it was pure enough to grow food, they thought, it could do wonders for a landscape that had been scraped clean of topsoil by the glaciers some 10,000 years ago.
“When we found we had passed all the tests for root crops, I was the first one that put in the plants,” Behnke said. “I went out and bought 50-cent watermelon plants from the clearance rack.”
Those watermelons did the Puyallup, and took first place. Behnke’s produce and flowers would take another 120 ribbons at the Western Washington Fair before he gave the rest of us a break.
“I realized I was giving the best of the food to the fair, so we stopped going,” he said.
Instead, he and his colleagues sent about 3,000 pounds of fresh produce to Tacoma’s food banks during the eight years of that half-acre garden. That was after they had shared tomatoes and onions with customers skeptical about the origins of this hot new soil. The sewage-to-table process can be a hard sell.
Not any more, with most community gardeners welcoming it into their beds.
Not any more, with the people who buy so much potting soil, bark – and truckloads of TAGRO mix – that the product turns a profit.
Not any more to the tens of thousands of others who come for a share of the free shovel-it-yourself pile. Behnke’s delighted by how many of them joke that it is “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
He is also happy to hear how many languages float out of the do-it-yourself area.
“People come in and I talk to them and get plants and ideas from around the world,” he said. “Russia, Asia, Europe.”
Those are some of the plants he has put into the newer, smaller demonstration gardens around the grounds near the greenhouse he built, in large part from salvaged materials.
“I grow everything from seed except for basil,” Behnke said. “I just can’t get that.”
Welcome to the club, Gordon.
The small gardens, he said, are his best marketing tools. Instead of the food banks, he gives the produce to visitors. When they tell him they are worried about the heavy metals they have heard about in other cities’ biosolids, he lets them know Tacoma addresses that problem at the sources.
“We control the metals before they go into the sewer line,” he said. “We have source control to make sure things aren’t being dumped. The storm sewers don’t go into our system. We don’t get any water off the streets.”
When visitors have gardening questions, he has answers. He, like many others on the staff, is a Master Gardener, dedicated to the success of everyone who puts a seed into soil.
“If they have success, that success comes back to us,” he said. “We try not to leave people with unanswered questions.”
In the evenings, he sees the results when he walks his neighborhood. It is in the North End, but the scene is the same all over Tacoma. People are putting in raised beds – in their front yards, side yards and back yards. People in other cities talk about their “parking strips.” Tacomans call them “planting strips.”
The trend, said Behnke, seems to have grown over the past 10 years.
“They put in the raised beds, and they surround them with our black bark, and they really pop. That’s a huge reward, to be able to walk around my neighborhood, and see the soil I had a hand in making,” he said. “TAGRO has grown to be a nationally-recognized program. We have proved you can make great soils.”
Where better to demonstrate that than in a workplace garden?