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Growing Community 

by Ann M. Colford

Spokane is a community of gardeners. Take a look around at the local garden centers on any given Saturday now that the weather's taken a turn for the warmer, and you'll see the proof. Gardeners know all the benefits of developing a green thumb - growing your own food, spending quality time outdoors, creating a beautiful environment for your family, and bumping into the neighbors while you work in the yard. But many people in the Spokane area cannot garden at home, due to lack of yard space or restrictions as a renter. This spring, the Second Harvest Food Bank is teaming up with the Transitional Living Center (TLC) to create a 2,500-square-foot community garden on land adjacent to TLC, and they're planning an informational meeting about it on Wednesday, April 7, at 7 pm.

"When you rent, you can't just put a garden in the backyard," says Skyler York, the Community Gardens Coordinator for the food bank. "So for people who enjoy gardening and don't have the space, or if they rent an apartment or house where they're not allowed to do it, the community garden gives them an option."

York approached TLC, which houses women and children in transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency, with the garden idea last fall after helping residents there build a four-bed garden. Working with Kevin Hagan, TLC's manager of maintenance and facilities, and TLC director Natalie Kenney, he settled on a flat sunny plot at the south end of TLC's extensive grounds. Hagan and York installed some fencing and laid the irrigation piping before the cold weather set in, then spent the winter months planning.

"I've always had a dream of doing something different with that land, rather than having a huge field," Hagan says. "It just seems like it could be used better."

Each raised bed will measure 4 by 8 feet, with a trellis for climbing plants and easy access to water. York estimates that more than 100 beds will be available in the garden, although he expects to start smaller this year and grow as demand increases. Hagan and York are busy building the beds and completing the fencing now; the garden will be open to people from across the city, especially in the surrounding neighborhood in northwest Spokane.

We're asking for squatters," jokes Hagan. "Once somebody squats someplace they begin to take ownership, I think. I can see it being a lot of work [for us] the first year, but I'm hoping the community will really take it on after that."

In addition to simply providing land, both York and the TLC staff hope to encourage the growth of a social community in the garden among people from all walks of life.

"We've got lots of space," says York. "We want to bring in as much diversity as possible to get it going. I'd like to see people who don't know how to garden and people who are experienced gardeners and maybe get a small community going, where people can talk, not just for gardening but socially."

Hagan notes, "You really cross economic barriers in the garden. Everyone wears hole-y Levis and has dirty hands. It doesn't matter what you're making in life, you're looking the same and you're on an even foothold there."

For TLC residents, the garden will encourage more interaction with the surrounding neighborhood, says Kenney, and allow the women to experience success and empowerment.

"There's social service, where you give people food, and there's social change, where you show people how to have community and how to grow their own food," she says. "For the women who live here, the introduction to gardening has exposed them and their kids to nature and to eating good food. And we like the community to come here and feel like we're a good neighbor. It makes us part of the community."

York works with Avista employees on their community garden, as well; last year, the Avista gardeners donated more than a ton of produce to the food bank. He also works with individual gardeners who want to grow food for their families and neighbors, and he is the food bank liaison for the national Plant-A-Row for the Hungry program, locally coordinated through the Inland Empire Garden Club. Encouraging individual gardens and community gardens may not result in an increased supply of donations to the food bank, he says, but helping people grow their own produce ultimately reduces the overall need at local food pantries.

"Instead of providing food, we're showing them how to do it," says York. "It's a different way [to see the benefit."

Beyond the immediate tangible benefits, York and Hagan see the community garden as a way to help people reconnect with the natural world.

"So many people are looking to feed their soul, and gardening just does that," Hagan says. "It really feeds the two hungers - the hunger in the belly and the hunger in the soul."

Publication date: 04/01/04

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