Over the summer, the little plot of land just off West 15th Avenue and Jefferson Street has come alive. The space sits on the city block adjacent to the Lane County Fairgrounds, across the street from a Eugene Water and Electric Board substation and the off-leash dog area in Jefferson Park.
Throughout the summer, the plot was abundant with tomatoes and herbs and summer squash, with mulch pathways running between the plants. And at 5 pm on Fridays, a group of volunteers — mostly neighbors — begins to trickle in.
In the months since Memorial Day weekend, volunteers have excavated the invasive quackgrass that once dominated the Solidarity Garden and replaced the weeds with a mix of food-bearing plants and medicinal herbs. The garden is open to the public to walk through or pass by via bike, with volunteers harvesting produce and leaving it for grabs on a blue plastic chair in the center of the plot. Other produce is brought to the Eugene Community Fridge’s 16th and Friendly Street location, where it gets cooked into ready-to-go meals for those who need them.
The idea of the Solidarity Garden has been in Anya Dobrowolski’s and her husband’s minds since they moved to the Jefferson Westside Neighborhood several years ago. “Andrew and I recognized that there was this little spot really close by in the neighborhood that was underutilized space,” Dobrowolski says.
Dobrowolski is an alum of the University of Oregon’s landscape architecture department and currently does residential garden design and maintenance work. She’s also no stranger to activism and mutual aid work; in 2015 she and a friend co-founded the Eugene ToolBox Project, which provides a tool library to the community.
At the time, the plot was covered in Queen Anne’s lace, which suggested to her that the soil had enough minerals for other plants to grow in. So Dobrowolski started making calls to Lane County, the city of Eugene and EWEB to figure out who was responsible for the property. “They were all like, ‘No, it’s that guy’s,’” she says. Then she’d ask the various entities if they would do anything if she started a garden on the plot and found the consensus to be that they didn’t care if she did.
For Dobrowolski, the spot was perfect: “unassuming,” in her words, but also highly visible to bikes passing by on the Fern Ridge Trail and neighbors on a stroll. “I think that we have both a birthright and a responsibility to take care of land,” she says, “and underutilized space like this is primed for us to improve it. And we shouldn’t have to ask for permission to do the right thing. We should just do it.”
“It’s based on mutual aid principles: taking something that hasn’t been used and turning it into something that is useful and good for everyone in the community,” says Jacob Trewe, who helped get the project off the ground. Trewe is a regular at Solidarity Garden work parties and an active member of the Eugene-Springfield Democratic Socialists of America. He says not everyone can come out to work parties, but those who can, do.
“It helps on the environmental side of things,” Trewe says, “and it helps working class folks be able to get access to some veggies that are delicious and fun, and it beautifies the area. Sometimes the most radical things are just seeing a need and filling it.”
Over the years, Dobrowolski would talk to her friends about her idea for the space, and they all wanted to make it happen.
“She was wanting to do something more into growing food,” says Jenna Witzleben, who got involved in planning the project last year, “wanting it to be in service of especially our unhoused neighbors.” Witzleben was working on their master’s project on medicinal landscapes at the time and started collaborating with Dobrowolski to figure out how they could integrate medicinal plants into the garden.
They also helped to research food-bearing plants that might be best for the Solidarity Garden, given its goal of accessibility, especially to Eugene’s unhoused community. “What are foods that are ready to eat, that people can harvest and don’t necessarily need cooking equipment and stoves to be able to process?” Witzleben says.
The original group — including Dobrowolski, Witzleben, the Trewe family and a handful of Dobrowolski’s other friends — set their first work party for Memorial Day weekend. Quackgrass is notoriously hard to get rid of, Witzleben says, and the group was trying to figure out how large of a patch they’d be able to remove by hand.
But the night before the work party, Dobrowolski learned that her neighbor had an excavator and volunteered to clear the patch. “They got what I think would’ve been at least 80 hours, if not more, of volunteer time done in about four hours,” she says, and then the group came in behind the excavator to remove any remaining grass and roots.
The next day, people came in with what they had to offer: bricks from a chimney that they just took down from their house, a laminator to make signs — and plant sprouts. “I don’t think we’ve paid for almost anything that’s in there,” Dobrowolski says.
Since then, the garden has come together quickly — largely thanks to volunteers showing up to weekly work parties when they can and Dobrowolski popping by in the mornings to water plants. Even so, it’s a project that doesn’t have a strong hierarchy, she says, which means it’s largely directed by people in the community who believe in the garden doing what they can to help. “It’s a really cool reminder of how much abundance we can have as a community when we know our neighbors,” Dobrowolski says, “and when we’re willing to put in at least two hours of time a week, and not everybody’s here every week.”
It’s also a way that those in the neighborhood have gotten to meet their neighbors; a family will stop by a work party and ask about what’s going on while their kid plays with shovels, or bikers will congratulate volunteers on what they’ve done with the plot as they pass by. “It’s been a wonderful way of bringing in all of these people who are in our neighborhood and use the neighborhood,” says Matie Trewe, who’s also been involved with the garden since its inception, “to get them to socialize and participate and feel like they’re part of something. The community building aspect of it has been so positive and amazing.”
In the coming months, the garden’s regular volunteers hope to transition into more perennial plants, growing plants that will live for multiple years. Many of the donations they received — squash and tomatoes and kohlrabi — are annual plants, which live for only one growing season. Witzleben’s medicinal herbs, too, will take a couple years until they produce enough for Witzleben to make salves, as they hope to do.
Still, Dobrowolski and her neighbors are grateful for what the Solidarity Garden brings them in the moment. “While we’re in this really challenging moment in history, it’s a good reminder that there’s a lot of people who have similar visions for what they want our neighborhood and our community and our world to be like,” she says, “and that they’re willing to show up for it.”
But Dobrowolski doesn’t want the garden to end with her little plot in the Friendly neighborhood. “A lot of people have been really inspired by this guerilla gardening idea,” she says. “I think it would be cool if people found little spots like this in their neighborhood and wanted to make it happen.”