Summer Guide: Adventures in Community Gardening

Seattle may be "metronatural," but it's not easy for a newcomer to find a plot of earth to work.

Despite what people might assume, it's not easy for a recent transplant to Seattle to locate a place to garden. From the outside looking in, Seattle is a healthy city with plenty of fans of green initiatives—and that could well be part of the problem. In Detroit, where I'm originally from, starting a community garden is not a difficult task. There's an abundance of space (due to the 40,000 or so vacant lots scattered across the city), and a relatively small fraction of the population interested in utilizing it for gardening or community food co-ops. I helped start two community gardens from the ground up (one with permission from the city, one more guerrilla-style), in addition to working on two urban farms, and space was never an issue. Getting volunteers, especially folks in their 20s and 30s, to participate wasn't always easy in Detroit, but if people genuinely wanted to garden near where they lived, there was ample room to do so.Here in Seattle, especially at the city's core, the exact opposite occurs. Undeveloped plots of land are difficult to find, zoning laws only make the problem worse, and the limited amount of gardening programs that do exist are often full, with extensive waiting lists to participate.Strolling through my Central District neighborhood on a warm spring day, I saw a small plot of land near the intersection of 14th and Yesler that residents were using for a garden. Technically called the Squire Park Garden, it consisted of roughly 30 raised beds full of vegetables like cabbage, kale, squash, corn, and tomatoes, plus plenty of flowers and herbs, all growing together quite nicely. It was well-tended, and a few female gardeners were out that day weeding and planting new seedlings. Delighted, I approached one of the women for more info and learned that we were standing in a P-Patch garden, affiliated with the city's most prominent gardening program, and that I just needed to go on their Web site or call to find out if I could join.I called the folks at P-Patch the next day to see if there was space for me to garden, but to my dismay not only was that particular garden all filled up, there were 57 people on the waiting list ahead of me. With the usual turnover rate, that means I could only hope to garden there sometime around 2011 at the earliest. The second closest P-Patch to where I live is Judkins Garden, which had 26 people on its waiting list. The third closest is at 26th and Spring, with a whopping 70 people on the waiting list. The Obama children could be in college by the time space opens up there.According to a P-Patch staff member, gardens in the Capitol Hill area typically have waiting lists of more than 100 people. She also mentioned that due to the recession, more city residents are searching for alternatives to their food supply, which has resulted in an upswing in the number of people applying for gardening space. Well, I'm happy that P-Patch is so popular, but what other options do folks have?If you live in the Central District, the UmojaFest P.E.A.C.E. Center (umojafestpeacecenter.ning.com) just started a garden open to members of the community. Located at 24th and Spring, they're looking for people to volunteer on Saturdays. Although space is limited, it's free to join. The lone catch is that it's collective gardening only, meaning everything harvested is sold at a farmers market and you don't get to keep anything. But if it's the therapeutic experience you're looking for (which is important), then this can be a resource.If you have any interest in working with kids, Seattle Youth Garden Works (sygw.org) is looking for volunteer mentors. They work exclusively with homeless and disadvantaged youth at their garden site in the University District—so know that this gardening experience isn't about you. They operate on a 12-week cycle and are searching for mentors for the summer session, which starts June 30. No previous gardening experience is necessary, although they do recommend having some experience working with youth. Every garden volunteer must take a Homelessness 101 class, and training is provided.Another option is the Urban Garden Share program (urbangardenshare.org)—possibly the most interesting alternative to P-Patch, as it matches homeowners who've got more backyard than they can care for with eager gardeners looking to exercise their green thumbs. It's a citywide initiative, so just visit the Web site and dive in.And if all else fails, just go guerrilla-style: Keep your eye open for a stalled development or an unkempt vacant lot, act like you belong there, and start gardening. This usually takes considerable work, and luck, but neighbors (especially those living next to vacant lots) often appreciate someone turning an eyesore into a green space. It's worked for me before, and it can't hurt to try it here in Seattle.jcunningham@seattleweekly.com

 
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