Tacoma reaps the rewards of community gardening

By Mariah Beckman

Harvest Pierce County Gleaning Coordinator Emily Garofalo works to get Early Bird Farm produce to local food banks to reduce food waste and support healthier lifestyles.

Gated patches of green, manicured boxes full of dirt lining Pierce County town streets have popped up everywhere. Where you least expect to see them, South Sound residents and visitors see the fruits of hard work ripen in community garden spaces from Bonney Lake to Vashon Island. Tacoma, in particular, has an abundance of community gardening projects.

As mandated by an initiative signed into law by Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, Destiny City is on track to become the city with the most community gardens per capita in the United States. More than 50 community gardens have taken root in Tacoma neighborhoods since 2008. Community gardens, which are maintained by citizens from all walks of life, offer gardeners many benefits. Today, there are 69 gardens in place or in development, and the number continues to grow.

One of the biggest benefits of checking out a patch in your neighborhood? If you ask Sue Ford from Proctor Garden in Tacoma, she’ll tell you it’s a “connection”. “Our society is really fragmented by all the roles that we have to assume – worker, parent, etc. Gardens give you an outlet for a role you wish to have. I connect with other gardeners in my little garden, in other gardens and workshops, with garden communities I visit or research online, and neighbors who just drop by and visit our community garden” , explains Sue.

One of the peripheral benefits of these gardens, according to Lynnette Scheidt, was the creation of a more sustainable and self-sufficient community environment. Lynnette, who is the president of the Dome Top Neighborhood Alliance, donated 110 pounds of locally sourced food to families in need in 2014 alone. “The Eastside of Tacoma is very diverse,” says Lynnette. “Eighty-nine percent of children in this region receive free or reduced-price lunches. If you teach a person the basics of gardening, they can feed their family for life.

These gardens have also helped weed out some bad seeds in Tacoma neighborhoods. While the exact metrics that support lower crime in neighborhoods with community gardens are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence abounds. Residents who participate in community gardens, as well as those who live in the immediate area, have all reported that these small plots have made their suburbs a little safer. Attendees and event organizers believe that seeing active people in a community sends the message that areas and their residents are not easy targets, and that the neighbors in that area are active and vigilant.

Citizens, neighbors and friends are connected through the 70 community gardens, more than 100 gleaning events or dozens of workshops, events and courses.
Citizens, neighbors and friends are connected through the 70 community gardens, more than 100 gleaning events or dozens of workshops, events and courses.

The Dome Top Alliance, upon request, will conduct a home visit to help individuals and families build a garden box (including the necessary wood, soil and seeds) free of charge. The efforts of this organization echo the kind of major support that has come from Pierce County’s greatest influence in community gardening, aptly named Harvest Pierce County. Harvest Pierce County has become a major driving force in organizing community gardening, food forest and gleaning projects in the South Sound.

In 2014, Harvest Pierce County was able to donate 120,000 pounds of food, harvested by an all-volunteer force, to those in need. Sourced from harvesting fruit trees and farms, local community gardens and farmers markets, and working with national organizations such as Share the Harvest, this organization strives to create stronger, safer communities by connecting citizens to each other and to their local food system.

Kristin McIvor, director of urban agriculture and local access program at HPC, says the success and growth of community gardens in Pierce County is not just due to partnerships and funding from the City of Tacoma, Pierce Conservation District and the local Tacoma Waste Recycling Organization. Grow (called Tagro for short). The success of these initiatives depends on the efforts of the citizens of Pierce County.

“We are paving the way for citizens to improve their community,” says McIvor. “If Tacoma didn’t want community gardens, there was nothing we could do to make them a reality. She goes on to say that by participating in these gardening and gleaning initiatives, citizens are improving community health, promoting access to good food, fighting climate change and growing the local economy.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked benefits of gardening initiatives in the South Sound is the outreach and educational opportunities that are made available in conjunction with these programs. Organizers involved in Pierce County’s gardening efforts don’t just want to provide residents with a haven. Educators like Sue Ford and Julia Martin-Lombardi, both of Tacoma, hope to foster a tradition of growth among local youth and adults.

Julia works with school children at McCarver Garden, where she leads a program called Communities Actively Strengthening Tacoma in Neighborhood Gardens and Schools. CASTINGS, established in 2009 under the Northwest Leadership Foundation, uses living labs to study the impact of food and sustainability strategies on children in underserved neighborhoods.

The 2014 Veggie Co-op volunteers learn to farm and grow together at Franklin Pierce High School.
The 2014 Veggie Co-op volunteers learn to farm and grow together at Franklin Pierce High School.

Julia is also involved in a partnership with renowned chef and author James Beard Maxime Bilet from Seattle. Inspired and independent from the work being done in community gardens in Tacoma, Julia and Maxime created the Hungry Owl Project. “CASTINGS has now merged with Imagine Food Innovation Group to form the Hungry Owl Foundation. Under Maxime Bilet’s leadership, our goal is to expand our ability to reach a wider audience through outreach programs and the use of our storefront in Seattle. We provide a place where families can come and explore the world of food.

There are so many ways and places to get out and get your hands dirty this summer. If you want to learn more about how you can be a part of any facet of the South Sound gardening scene, gardener Proctor Sue Ford explains her must-know list for anyone new to gardening programs. community as she experienced them:

  • Walk through some gardens and learn about them before deciding to be part of them. Do you have boundaries and does this garden have garden areas you can use? Are the people in this garden socializing and do you want to be part of it? Is there a volunteer requirement, such as service hours or food bank donations; if so, can you meet these expectations?
  • Consider the investment of time and energy before signing up. For example, do you have gloves and the patience to visit your garden, whatever the weather? Don’t be afraid to try out a potted plant before you sign up and see how you do.
  • Consider the little things. Does your family take vacations every summer and can your garden do without you during this time? Do you think you can swallow a good month of radishes or carrots?
  • Contact the person who manages the garden that most interests you. (Check the list below or Harvest Pierce County regularly for an updated list of names, phone numbers, or email addresses. Some gardens are popular and have a waiting list to join, so consider two or even three gardens that might suit you.
  • Get ready and get inspired! Visit garage sales to find second-hand tools and garden art. Visit stores, learn about seeds, send in free seed catalogs, and perhaps most importantly, check out free gardening classes offered by HPC, city, and county. Enjoy gardening education and learn before you start digging.

Don’t forget to connect with your neighbors, too! Existing gardeners are a wealth of information. Join the Dome Top Alliance for information, recipes and to participate in seed swapping events. Contact Julia or Maxime of the Hungry Owl Project to learn how to bring green tips to public schools and families in Tacoma. Look for Kristin who leads workshops and gleaning projects at a Pierce County lot near you. Whichever way you choose to get involved, you can do so with pride, knowing that you are part of an amazing new tradition of sustainability and community in Tacoma and the South Sound.

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