Alice Aikens has been cultivating her plot at Amazon Community Gardens for 20 years.
“I just pull my boots on and get down there,” she says — almost every morning, even in February. What’s so great about it? “I can eat fresh vegetables the day I pick them, and it’s nice to share tomatoes and cukes with family and friends in summer.” But Aikens also likes the challenge of gardening at Amazon. “You nurture not just plants but people. And I think it makes you a more responsible person — you are responsible for your garden, and the more time you put in the better it is.” Aikens’ very favorite thing to grow is sweet peas, especially a fragrant white variety called April in Paris. I bet her fellow gardeners appreciate those, too.
As site coordinator, Aikens is responsible for more than her own plot. Inside the fence, she and her team keep the facility tidy and in working order. In February, she was in the tool shed, cleaning up the shared tools and tending the ornamentals she’s planted around the shed. The Amazon garden is one of six sites where the City of Eugene Community Gardens Program offers garden plots you can rent to grow your own food. The city provides plots, water and tools, and takes care of the secure perimeter fences and everything outside them. Site coordinator teams do the rest.
Eugene’s Community Gardens Program is operated by Parks and Open Space. One location, Skinner City Farm, has both individual plots and some larger ones for rent by organizations (all of them currently rented). Another site, at Alton Baker Park, has a number of raised beds for people with accessibility issues. Organic methods are “strongly encouraged” at all the city’s sites: Chemical fertilizers are permitted, but no pesticides or herbicides are allowed. Gardeners who held a plot use permit the previous year can renew the permits in January.
According to Parks Supervisor Chris Girard, this year’s renewal rate was about 75 percent, leaving 73 plots open — enough to satisfy demand this year, he reckons. Getting a plot at your preferred site, however, could be difficult. The Amazon site, which he describes as “a pretty tight community,” has only three vacancies this year, and the small garden at River House has one. Many more plots are available at Alton Baker Park (including four raised beds) and at the Matthews and Whiteaker sites.
There are several different kinds of community gardens in the Eugene area. FOOD for Lane County (FFLC) operates three professionally managed garden sites, where volunteers, local teenagers and students on field trips join the staff to raise organic produce for the hungry while acquiring gardening skills. Each garden has its special focus and character. At the Youth Farm in Springfield, limited-income teenagers learn about good nutrition and assist in running a 50-member community supported agriculture (CSA) and two farm stands, gaining skills in organic agriculture, marketing, teamwork and leadership. At two of the FFLC sites you can also rent a plot to grow your own food. Tools, camaraderie and gardening tips are provided. All three gardens are beautiful and great fun to visit.
Then there are neighborhood community gardens. The Common Ground Garden in the Friendly neighborhood is a great model for neighbors gardening together, with a permit, on public land. Here a group of neighbors have come together, with the city’s blessing, to convert vacant city land to a flourishing garden where volunteers are invited to share in the harvest. It succeeds because there was considerable interest in the idea from the start, and it was organized by a dedicated group of people who were willing to put in the time and sweat to make it fly. One of those neighbors is Anne Donahue, who happens to work for the city of Eugene. (She is currently the city’s compost and urban agriculture coordinator.)
“The whole goal of the garden,” Donahue says, “was to grow food, show folks how to grow their own food in a cooperative growing situation, show neighborhood children where their food comes from and inspire other neighborhoods to do the same in their neighborhoods. We hope to provide a mentorship of sorts for other gardening efforts, both individually and cooperatively.”
Donahue, evidently smitten with the concept, adds, “I could tell you so many stories about the neighborhood children that are learning to eat fresh kale and chard, children whose first stop on their neighborhood walk is the cucumber patch and green bean tunnel at the garden, boys that learn to sit calmly while watching a ladybug crawl from one hand to another and back again. Adults change their neighborhood walking patterns to visit the garden regularly to see what we are doing and when we are doing it.”
The city puts our money where its mouth is by offering Neighborhood Matching grants for similar projects. “There are many right-of-way areas that might work well for growing spots,” Donahue asserts. “Find a likely spot, go down to the permit and information center and ask to speak to a land use staff person. Whether or not a garden can be grown there will need to be determined before looking for a neighborhood matching grant to develop it.”
There are still other options for people who would like to grow their own veggies but lack the knowledge, space or sunshine at home. Donahue suggests looking at utility and church property. There are often green grassy areas that need maintenance for the utility, and if gardening is permitted perhaps maintenance can be traded for use of the property. Several churches in town already follow this example, she says.
Lindsey Foltz is volunteer garden manager of a year-old garden project at the corner of 15th and Taylor. It is supported by Eugene Faith Center, which owns the land and helps pay for irrigation. Some volunteers are affiliated with the church, but it is not a requirement. “We welcome new volunteers,” Foltz told me. “We volunteers share produce amongst ourselves and also donate to the FOOD for Lane County food pantry on the faith center campus and to the Eugene Mission.” More information can be found at www.eugenefaithcenter.org
There may be other opportunities on private land. In my own neighborhood, there’s a small garden starting up on the grounds of the privately owned Reach Center, a neighborhood activity center at Harris and 25th. Anyone is welcome to stop by, help cultivate the garden, enjoy the company and take a little produce home (firstname.lastname@example.org).
FFLC Grassroots Garden on Coburg Road could use more volunteers’ help to maintain its amazing level of productivity. Director Merry Bradley tells me that in recent years they never logged fewer than 20,000 volunteer hours per year, and often had many more. This past year, for a variety of reasons, numbers have dropped.
Right now, volunteers are needed to distribute some beautiful soil that was recently brought in from the late Courthouse Garden. That garden, the brainchild of federal judge Ann Aiken, became a unique joint gardening venture between the city of Eugene and the University of Oregon, and deserved an award for Most Remarkable Community Garden Setting. It was dismantled this spring after a productive three-year run, and I for one was sorry to see it go.
How to get a garden
To enter the lottery for an available plot in one of the community gardens, return an application with the appropriate payment no later than 5 pm on Monday, March 18. The initial lottery round is drawn from the pool of city of Eugene residents. If plots are still available, there’s a second lottery for other applicants.
Visit www.eugene-or.gov/communitygardens for forms and information.
For information about FOOD for Lane County gardens, write email@example.com or call 343-2822