If you build it, they will come

July 13, 2010

By Tim Pfarr

Issaquah Flatland Community Garden proves to be a popular, helpful, healthy addition to the city

Andrew Merges (left) and his wife Angela tend to their personal bed in the Issaquah Flatland Community Garden. By Tim Pfarr

For someone who lives in an apartment or condominium, it may seem the only way to have a personal garden is to dump a bunch of soil in the bathtub, buy an ultraviolet lamp and install some tomato plants. Well, it’s time these people got word there is such a thing as a community garden, and that bathing can once again ensue.

Just a couple of blocks north of Issaquah Valley Elementary School, one can find the Issaquah Flatland Community Garden. The project came to life in May 2009 thanks to many volunteers and a partnership between Sustainable Issaquah and the company AtWork!, which helps people with disabilities be productive, integrated and contributing members of their communities.

The garden on the site of the AtWork! Issaquah office turned out to be hotter than jalapeños when it opened, its 24 beds filling almost instantly.

“The community garden kind of rose to the top as a low-hanging fruit,” said Chantal Stevens, Sustainable Issaquah co-founder. “Everybody wanted one.”

Dennis Wajda, AtWork! employment consultant and community liaison, agreed.

“We never had to go door to door or hang anything,” he said. “People just came.”

He said volunteers worked expediently in ripping out part of the AtWork! lawn, installing the garden and building a fence around it.

“Literally, in one month, it went from looking like that grass to this,” Wajda said, motioning to the garden and the grass that still surrounds it.

Each 4-by-15 bed costs $40 per year, and the cost covers watering. Gardeners must also bring their own plants. Of the garden’s 24 beds, six are designated “community impact beds,” and the produce they yield goes directly to the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank.The impact beds are divided into thirds, and every member of the garden chooses one of these small beds to tend. Last year, the six beds yielded 500 pounds of produce.

People with disabilities also help with the community impact beds by delivering produce to the food bank.

Although the garden is full, you can join a waiting list on the garden’s website and volunteer while you wait by weeding, donating plants and watering the garden.

Members of the garden also get access to the community herb bed, which all members help with and use. Among the herbs grown there are sage, parsley, thyme, oregano and cilantro.

The Flatland Community Garden will be undergoing some changes in the coming days. A large stump adjacent to the garden is slated for removal to make way for a handicapped-accessible bed.

Furthermore, the city Arts Commission has awarded the garden a $10,000 grant that will be used to construct an aesthetically pleasing gate. The garden has until the end of the year to use the grant funds.

Wajda said it will not undergo any further significant expansion for at least another year or two, because the AtWork! building is being remodeled.

Two gardeners who have taken full advantage of the garden are husband and wife Andrew and Angela Merges, of Issaquah.

Angela said she located the garden while searching online for a garden to join. The garden was full when she discovered it, but she joined the waiting list and spent a year volunteering before she was able to get a bed of her own.

“I just wanted to get my hands dirty,” she said. “So, I went out and played in the garden.”

The Merges operate a bed of their own, and Angela considers their bed a “snack garden,” because it grows peas, radishes, carrots, spinach, onions, tomatoes and beans.

Andrew said he loves the herb garden as well.

“Just forget dry herbs when you have an herb garden,” he said.

Sammamish resident Wally Presbo also operates two small community impact beds, and he does so in conjunction with his church, Spirit of Peace United Church of Christ in Sammamish.

Presbo, a master gardener, uses his beds to teach children from his church about gardening. He grows lettuce, spinach, radishes, potatoes, onions, snap peas, zucchini, cucumber, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and carrots. Ninety percent of the produce from his beds is donated to the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank.

“It’s a hands-on thing,” Presbo said. “I set up a time when I’m going to be there, and they show up and help plant literally everything.”

Tips from the gardeners

-Plant your garden in the warmest, sunniest place you can.

-Start with good soil that drains well.

-Use a raised bed for an open garden.

-Water plants at ground level, especially potato and tomato plants.

-Keep the garden weeded.

-Give plants in an open garden one inch of water per week.

-Use organic fertilizer.

-Don’t let anything dry out.

-Use marigold and cayenne pepper to keep out animals, such as rabbits and slugs.

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