Gardeners grow community spirit in pea patches
August 30, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah-area community gardens offer bounty, camaraderie
Summertime in the Mirrormont Pea Patch resembles a slice of Eden on Tiger Mountain.
Pathways crisscross the ground among the lush leaves and verdant vines reaching out from bean, potato, tomato and dozens of other plants. Colorful blooms and delicate herbs greet guests at the garden gate.
“It’s about growing food, but it’s also about growing community,” Linda Jean Shepherd, a longtime Mirrormont resident and lead figure in establishing the pea patch, said on a stroll through the garden.
Some plots contain plants in neat rows. The plants in others bend and coil to Mother Nature’s whims.
“It’s so fun to see how people’s personalities are expressed in their gardens,” Shepherd said.
In Mirrormont and elsewhere in the Issaquah area, community gardens continue to sprout on empty lots and unused corners. The pea patches offer opportunities to grow produce, sure, but also a chance to grow community as neighbors join to dig and plant.
Gardeners from the pea patches often donate fresh, and often organic, produce to the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank and other food pantries.
The participants in the Issaquah Flatland Community Garden near AtWork! in downtown Issaquah donate 25 percent of their haul to the Issaquah food bank.
Issaquah Highlands residents Chantal Stevens and Dennis Wajda helped establish the Issaquah Flatland Community Garden in early 2009.
Nowadays, the garden is a popular spot for residents in nearby multifamily complexes.
“We have people gardening because they really need food on the table and we have people who are gardening because they really love gardening,” Stevens said.
Interest grows in Issaquah, elsewhere
In local pea patches, participants share maintenance duties or contribute to a fund for upgrades. In Mirrormont and elsewhere, donating some elbow grease to the garden is standard procedure. Crews upgraded the Providence Point Pea Patch in time for the ongoing gardening season.
Come planting time, gardeners throughout the area employ a similar strategy. Gardeners learn early on to use the space judiciously, because most pea patch plots occupy fewer than 100 square feet. (The name P-Patch is unique to Seattle and originates from the original community garden, Picardo Farm.)
“I have a little, tiny bit of space, so the kinds of the things that are the most productive for me are the things that cost a lot of money but are easy to grow — lettuce and spinach and arugula and onions and chard and kale, all of those green things — which cost you plenty of money at the grocery store but are easy to grow in a small space,” said Ann Lamb, a Providence Point Pea Patch participant and a lifelong gardener.
What to know
Sustainable Issaquah, a community group, joined the international urban gardening effort Sharing Backyards to connect landowners and people interested in growing food.
Sharing Backyards, at www.sharingbackyards.com, is a matchmaking website to link suppliers and people seeking space for gardening.
Under the program, the space sharers must establish ground rules. Participants should consider questions such as, who will water and harvest the produce?
In order to participate, follow the link labeled “Issaquah, WA” at www.sharingbackyards.com. Click on the icon showing clumps of grass to indicate “I am sharing my yard” or the binoculars icon to indicate “I am looking for space”’
Sustainable Issaquah encourages citizen engagement, education and action to strengthen economic, social and environmental vitality. Learn more about the organization at http:// sustainableissaquah.org.
Taste, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a major factor in establishing such gardens.
“It’s a great way to be in touch with the seasons and nature,” said Russ Ayers, Issaquah Highlands Community Association landscape manager. “Growing your own food is immensely satisfying. The freshness and flavor of homegrown stuff versus what’s sold in the supermarkets is extraordinary.”
Some gardeners, such as Lamb, also enjoy the challenge to coax tomatoes from the ground in the sometimes-recalcitrant Pacific Northwest climate.
“Tomatoes are worth the extra trouble, because you can grow so much better a tomato yourself than you can buy in the store,” she said.
The burgeoning eat-local effort and continued pressure from the anemic economy also caused interest in community gardens to grow.
American Community Gardening Association Executive Director Beth Urban said the Columbus, Ohio-based organization started fielding more questions and receiving more website traffic in recent years.
“People have become aware of local food and they’re being part of that movement, and they have an interest in growing their own local and, a lot of times, organic food,” she said. “I also think the economic downturn is still playing a part in it. It’s a much more economically feasible way to get fresh fruit and produce.”
The interest in establishing more garden plots in King County led leaders to open additional land for community gardens. King County Council members approved a plan in April to allow groups to manage and cultivate unused county property.
Camaraderie sprouts in pea patches
Under the legislation, the groups can establish and sustain the garden sites. The gardeners do not own the land, and the county coordinates use agreements and connects interested parties to potential sites.
The sites include open space at 191st Avenue Southeast and Southeast 42nd Place near Lake Sammamish in Issaquah. Estimates indicate the land could provide up to 24,000 square feet for a community garden.
Frana Milan, a program manager for King County Parks, said the sites opened under the council action did not attract groups, in part due to the timing of the decision.
“The demand for community gardening plots has been on the rise, but I do think that there are a lot of challenges that groups face in trying to get up and running,” she said. “Part of it is land or finding appropriate land. Internal organization to kind of get it going and keeping it sustained over the years also can be challenging.”
The payoff is substantial for groups able to put down roots and establish community gardens.
“Anyone who has been involved in community gardening efforts, they always bring up the fact that it’s much more than just food that you’re growing,” Milan said. “A lot of it is about bringing people together, bringing people of different generations, different ethnicities — gardening is something common shared across many different cultural backgrounds — and is also just a good reason to be outside.”
The residents tilling and planting the Issaquah Highlands Community Garden reflects the surrounding neighborhood.
“It’s the whole spectrum,” Ayers said. “We have folks with families and we probably have a few single folks, young couples, older folks, people that are the lifelong gardeners.”
Since the garden opened in 2006, most gardeners return season after season. The retention rate is high; more than 70 percent return.
Participants in local pea patches said conversation also grows among the raised beds and cedar chip pathways.
“It’s so easy when you’re gardening, because everybody wants to know what everybody is growing,” Klahanie Pea Patch Coordinator Susan Thornton Berenson said. “What variety is that? What are you growing? How did that do for you? Did you do that last year? It’s a natural conversation starter.”
Gardeners trekking down a gravel road to the plots — the Klahanie Pea Patch is in a forested greenbelt — trade produce and stories.
“It’s probably the easiest way to just be able to meet people and talk with people, because you’ve all got that one central interest,” Thornton Berenson continued. “Everybody shares their tools or shares their know-how.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or email@example.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.