Local church puts “community” into community gardening

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

A local church has added some SOUL to community gardening. For over 20 years, Cottonwood Presbyterian Church has housed a space called the SOUL Garden where residents, whether members of the church or not, can tend to a plot in their large community garden. The 2.8-acre space has over 50 plots that people can tend to as part of a thriving community effort.

The SOUL (Urban Land Stewardship) Community Garden is located behind the Cottonwood Presbyterian Church at 1580 Vine Street. For a one-time nominal fee, residents can sign up for land approximately 12 feet by 24 feet and grow the produce they love. Volunteer gardeners, including Steve Sands and Marshall Smith, are always there to lend a hand and offer expert advice.

“We have about 54 plots, and only about 13 are used by church members,” Sands said. “It’s really a neighborhood thing.”

The SOUL Garden offers a common experience to its participants. Its coordinators offer gardening classes, community events like Easter egg hunts, and hold monthly work days to tackle garden-scale maintenance projects. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the church used the garden for socially distanced outdoor Sunday services during the warmer months.

“The gardens are bigger than any other garden I’ve been to,” Smith said. “These are real gardens.”

Gardeners are asked to donate 20% of the produce they grow, which is sold to raise money for charity. Products that don’t sell are also donated to charity. The garden makes regular donations to the Utah Food Bank and a nearby women’s shelter. Sands’ wife often takes the lead in sales, which have no list price. Customers pay what they think the product is worth.

The demand for garden plots has grown as fast as vegetables. One of the challenges its organizers face is having enough open plots for new applicants. “It was originally a small garden, and Steve and I made it bigger,” Smith said. This growth has led to another challenge in the form of water pressure. Access to water has limited the garden to its current number of plots.

Gardeners lucky enough to have a plot in the space can partake in common parts of the garden, such as an orchard and raspberry and asparagus plots. Gardeners also enjoy seeing others tending to their garden regularly and getting to know their neighbors.

They are also likely to see Sands and Smith, who offer help and advice in addition to tending their own plots. Smith is a master gardener who has put in countless hours of work at the SOUL Garden over the years. When surveying the garden, he will point out new features, things that need fixing, and much-appreciated donations of mulch and supplies. He often greets a neighbor or friend passing by on the Murray Canal Trail, which passes behind the garden.

Sands and Smith walked through the gardens during the winter offseason noting its features, including the grapes a member used to make wine. They can quickly name who owns each garden, what they like to grow, and how they’ve changed the space to make it their own. Sands and Smith sound like proud uncles when talking about the gardeners in their community.

Children also play a key role in the SOUL Garden. Students from nearby Woodstock Elementary School tend two large plots and take advantage of class outings to plant and maintain the garden during the school year. Families volunteer to take care of the school grounds during the summer holidays.

“It’s a great introduction to gardening for a lot of these kids,” Sands said.

The garden is open to visitors, even if they do not have their own garden plot. The space offers wide straight paths to walk between the plots and two pergolas with terrace. The SOUL Garden also has a meditation space in the form of a prayer maze, one of the relatively few recorded mazes in Utah.

Although garden plots can be difficult to obtain, anyone interested in applying can do so through Cottonwood Presbyterian Church. With planting season approaching, Sands and Smith will be there to lend a hand or offer a nice chat.

“I consider this a terrific addition to the community,” Smith said.