Gardening in the Community
It’s been a rough few weeks for blog posting- but not for lack of news! I’ve been busy writing articles for a local newsletter, and I’m afraid I’ve fallen behind on the science front. But, my first article was published today! If you’re in Davis, you can pick up a hard copy at the Co-op (or, just read it here!).
I never intended to start a garden.
The assignment started out straight forward enough: talk to the community gardening coordinators around Davis and report back. Easy. No sweat. Although my appetite for fresh summer vegetables can be all consuming, it’s been years since I actually grew my own.
Like many apartment-dwelling Davis residents, my gardening prospects are limited by space. Our shady front stoop is just large enough to accommodate a few potted plants; last year my ‘garden’ consisted of a single Sun Gold tomato plant (my sole hope for a summer vegetable crop). After an entire season of being watered, tended, nurtured, and loved, it bore exactly two golden-orange cherry tomatoes. They were delicious.
I learned the hard way that whispered encouragements and adoring gazes don’t take the place of adequate sunshine and growing space. I’ve accepted the fact that my tomato-growing plans and budding green thumb will have to wait until I can stake out a sunny patch of land of my own. So in the meantime I’m saving my seeds.
As a would-be gardener, I was looking forward to touring the public community gardens in Davis and seeing what our city has to offer. Though the idea of a shared gardening space has always been appealing, the nitty-gritty details of rental and maintenance seemed to outweigh the benefits of procuring a plot. Who can join? Is it expensive? What if you don’t have tools? It can get a little overwhelming for a gardening greenhorn.
Well, after a few interviews and a bit of sleuthing, I’m pleased to report that Davis is the forward-thinking home of two large, well-established community gardens that have inexpensive plots open to the public for rental and on-site tools available for use. You’ve probably driven past the Davis Community Garden (DCG) (the open patch of greenery on 5th St between L and Pole Line) or heard something about the Experimental College (EC) Garden (located on UCD’s campus, nestled behind the domes). Both have been around since the 70s and are fixtures of the Davis landscape and history.
The DCG is supported by the City of Davis and run by the city’s Community Services Department. One hundred thirteen gardening plots rest on a crazy-quilt acre of individual plot styles and philosophies. When I visited the garden on a sunny Saturday morning in April, the area was buzzing with activity. In recent months, Jane Schafer-Kramer, the garden’s long-time coordinator, has seen interest in the DCG increase, and not just among avid gardeners. In fact, the people ready to try their hand at gardening in a community aren’t easily categorized.
Gardeners at the DCG range from students to retirees to young families with children- a melting pot of cultural and societal backgrounds. This diversity is reflected in the DCG’s lively collection of vegetables, flowers, fences, and colorful lawn ornaments. Though many gardeners stick to the basics (tomatoes, beans, peppers, and squash), Jane has seen everything from sugarcane to Japanese okra.
We walk past the community herb garden (any member can use it), a patch of catnip (to lure rodent-catching felines), and a ramshackle skeleton of an outdoor patio umbrella (an inventive trellis for peas) to the old wooden picnic table at the center of the garden. This is where DCG members share the fruits of their labors. Because many people harvest more than they can consume, it’s common to find extra vegetables left on the table for DCG members to help themselves. But the DCG is more than a place to produce and share food and flowers; to Jane, the garden is a personal sanctuary, a refuge where she can always come to get fresh air, exercise and neighborly advice. “Everybody’s so helpful,” she says with a smile, “you can listen to 113 different ways to grow a tomato.”
For $57 a year, a gardener at the DCG can rent an 18’x20’ plot and use the community tools, hoses, and all the water their plants can drink. It’s a good deal by even the thriftiest standards, and Davis residents have noticed. Just a few months ago, a wannabe gardener could get on the waiting list for the DCG and receive a plot in less than 2 weeks. Now, the wait is nearly a year. Jane has raised this issue with the city- they are currently looking for areas to expand the garden. Ideally, she’d like to see a community garden in every neighborhood.
Fortunately, there’s still a chance to obtain a slice of the community gardening pie. The EC garden comprises an area of organically maintained gardening space that’s nearly 4x the size of the DCG. And there’s no waiting list. Although the plots are smaller (10’x20’), the rental fee is less than half that of the DCG ($25/year), and you can rent as many plots as you’re able to maintain. For those short on cash, a work-trade system allows gardeners to swap time spent on community chores for a reduction in plot rental fees.
Belief in community gardening extends beyond those maintaining a plot, however. According to Tim Quick, the EC Garden Coordinator, UCD isn’t just paying lip service to their commitment to sustainability. Manure, wood chips, and rice hulls are included for free, courtesy of the UCD dairy farm.
Like the DCG, the EC Garden is a potential gold mine for the urban gardener. The patchwork plots are peppered with chicken coops, bee boxes, and fruit trees and run the gamut from meticulously tended to slightly overgrown. Although the empty fields adjacent to the EC garden used to be a breeding ground for crop-munching squirrels, Tim, a UCD graduate in Agriculture Management and Rangeland Resources, has worked to eradicate these pests through a comprehensive ecological approach. He’s cleared low-hanging bushes and other likely squirrel habitats, cut rental rates to entice more people to join, and encouraged gardeners to visit their plots frequently. EC Garden members have even erected owl boxes to help boost natural predation. That’s one of the perks of gardening in a community; if you have a problem, there’s always a myriad of solutions to choose from, and neighbors to help.
I didn’t come to the EC Garden looking for a plot, but when I left, I had committed to renting four. In one afternoon my garden had grown from one potted Sun Gold to 800 square feet of untapped gardening potential. Tim looks forward to the day when the EC Garden community has grown to fill every plot, and the entire space is actively gardened. He’s got a long way to go, but if interest in gardening continues to blossom, this vision may soon be realized.
You can find information about the DCG or the EC Garden at the Davis Wiki (search term: Community Gardens)