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Harvesting the City: Urban gardens grow communities’ personal satisfaction

Volunteers work in the Human Services Garden next to the St. Vincent de Paul dining room on the Human Services Campus near downtown Phoenix. Produce from the garden is used in St. Vincent de Paul kitchens to feed the homeless. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography.)

An urban garden cultivates nature in the midst of a man-made environment, and many people find escape and relaxation while digging in the dirt and tending plants.

Mary Geier says she’s found sanity and feels normal again working in the Human Services Garden next door to the St. Vincent de Paul dining room in downtown Phoenix. After living on the street since losing her job and home, Geier is now staying at Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) while trying to piece her life back together.

Sitting on a mound of freshly turned soil, Geier, 35, digs a hole with a hand trowel, sets a pepper plant in the earth and gently pats it in place.

“This is a refreshing change from my experience on the streets,” Geier says, “I was so full of fear out there and I felt like I was in a leper colony.”

The one-acre garden was planned to provide both therapy and some training for clients of the campus of homeless services, says David Bridge, director of the Maricopa County Human Services Campus, which includes CASS, St. Vincent de Paul, Lodestar Center and other agencies uniting to aid the homeless. The city of Phoenix, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and local businesses have worked to develop the garden site, which will provide produce for the St. Vincent de Paul dining room.

The Mesa Urban Garden, started in July 2012 in downtown Mesa, is also the result of community involvement and city facilitation. The small vacant lot in the shadow of the Mesa Arts Center had potential in the eyes of Ryan Winkle, one of the garden’s founders and vice-chair of its non-profit board of directors. He wanted to encourage people to grow fresh food for themselves and their families.

Chef Taylor Blackburn, 24, a recent graduate of the Cordon Bleu school in Scottsdale, grows produce he can’t find in the markets at the Mesa Urban Garden. He has planted heirloom tomatoes and dragon tongue beans, along with peppers, eggplant and herbs.

“You respect and appreciate produce more when you see how much work goes into it,” Blackburn says, “I like watching the progress in my garden.”

The garden rents prepared plots in three different sizes and volunteers are available to help people new to gardening. It also is building special garden beds that will be accessible according to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Growing Together, a Giving Garden, is another small, subdivision-lot size garden in north central Phoenix operated by a non-profit. Rhonda Cronin co-founded the garden with Judy Walden on a vacant lot owned by a friend and neighbor at Second Street and Glendale Avenue. The garden is maintained by volunteers, including Boy Scouts and elementary school students. All the produce is donated to nearby Living Streams Church, which distributes it to the needy.

Sandy Smith, 59, has volunteered at the Growing Together garden for a year, she comes every Saturday morning and says she likes the usefulness of gardening and enjoys helping to feed those in need.

“When I traveled in Germany, every vacant lot had a garden,” she says, “They use every inch of ground to grow fruits and vegetables, so it is productive.”

The ‘re-skilling’ movement
The economic downturn a few years ago spurred a new crop of urban gardeners, according to Greg Peterson, developer of the Urban Farm in north-central Phoenix. Peterson teaches classes, conducts workshops and hosts weekend plant fairs to help gardeners plan and plant a vegetable patch. He says the growing interest is part of a “re- skilling movement” that includes many basic back-to-nature and do-it- yourself skills that people are taking up for enjoyment and to save money.

Peterson also helped found the Valley Permaculture Alliance, a non- profit incorporated in 2007 that has helped guide urban garden start- ups.

Doreen Pollack is executive director of the alliance, which offers a 12-hour workshop to help people organize and create community gardens.

The training helps organizers avoid common mistakes and anticipate problems.

“Sometimes people have a great idea and a desire to create a community project, but it takes a lot of work,” Pollack says.

The non-profit has helped Mesa Urban Garden and the Growing Together garden plan and set up their organizations, among more than 50 Valley gardens. Valley Permaculture Alliance works with Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service to provide desert shade trees to their customers and it offers a variety of classes in gardening and sustainable living.

Another resource for urban gardeners is the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service. Haley Paul is an assistant in extension urban agriculture for the service, and she has helped develop the Human Services Garden. Paul oversees community volunteers in the garden and she offers training and simple certifications to clients, such as Geier, who work in the garden. The certifications may be for whatever gardening chore is done for the day, including seed saving, harvesting and food safety. Though simple, the certificates can help clients build confidence and qualify for jobs, she says.

Paul hopes some clients may continue their interest in gardening and move on to the extension service Smart Scape Program for 20 hours of training and certification. The university extension service also offers master gardener classes for serious and professional gardeners.

Phoenix Renews

The extension service has been active in the Phoenix Renews program, initiated by Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton last fall. The program encourages the use of vacant lots for community gardens and art projects, such as murals, says Colin Tetreault, senior sustainability policy adviser to the mayor.

Tetreault says nearly 43 percent of land in Phoenix is vacant property. Since vacant lots tend to be eyesores, gardens and art will improve property values. The gardens may start as an interim use of commercial or subdivision lots, but the benefits of community involvement and the enhancement of the neighborhood are likely to spur the maintenance of garden projects even when the property is developed, he says.

The city has passed ordinances to make zoning easier for community gardens. It has spent no money on the gardens, but has lowered hurdles for community organizers, Tetreault says.

At Central Avenue and Indian School Road, adjacent to Steele Indian School Park, community gardens were started in November on the 15-acre site. Paul and the university extension service are involved and using “science-based approaches, such as cover crops” at the site, she says.

The International Refugee Committee organized a garden at the site for African refugees living in Phoenix. Gompers Habilitation Center has a garden where the disabled adults it serves can work and grow things.

The city of Mesa gave Mesa Urban Garden a five-year lease for $1 per year, with an option to renew for two years. It was important to the organizers that their work and improvements would have a chance to flourish, Winkle says. Since last July, they have purchased soil, built 98 garden beds and created an irrigation system.

Arizona State University architecture students built the ADA- accessible beds — elevated so someone in a wheelchair can work in a garden plot. These students also designed a pavilion to provide shade and collect rainwater the garden. Grant money just arrived to complete the ADA beds. The pavilion has block columns, but needs more money for the specialized roof design, says Marissa Mendoza, a fourth-year ASU architecture student working on the project.

Growing Together, A Giving Garden, has a three-year lease for $1 per year, with the family who owns the property. Boy Scouts planted fruit trees on the perimeter of the garden, and a construction company donated a fence.

Smith at the Growing Together garden observes that “gardening is work.” But, while watering a row of emerging new plant shoots, she also says, “Look what just one seed can produce; one cantaloupe seed can produce six cantaloupes.”

Community gardens are the product of many volunteers and agencies, says Pollack at the Valley Permaculture Alliance, but they help achieve the single goal of sustainable, healthy living.

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