Home & Garden

Elk Grove volunteers put community into garden

This neighborhood oasis grew out of a field of weeds.

A decade ago, this irregular plot of land on the edge of Elk Grove’s Hampton Village subdivision didn’t look like paradise – or much of anything else. It was overgrown with blackberry brambles and prickly thistle. Most of the year, it looked brown and foreboding, a strip of no-man’s land that wrapped around its suburban neighborhood.

“It was just all weeds before,” said Lisa Williams, who lives nearby. “We’re really happy to make something useful.”

Now, it’s a ribbon of bountiful green, producing food by the bushel as well as countless happy memories.

Next Saturday, Elk Grove Community Garden celebrates its 10th anniversary, a major accomplishment for such a volunteer effort.

And living up to its name, this garden has brought its community together in ways that make it a model of success.

“Ten years is a long time,” said Sacramento-area community garden coordinator Bill Maynard, who helped organizers launch the Elk Grove garden. “It took four years to just get approved, definitely one of the longest (approval processes) I was involved in. There was meeting after meeting and so many groups that had to sign off on it. They had to raise the money to start a garden and find a way to make it all work. But it was worth it.”

Originally set aside as a potential light-rail corridor, the 1.1-acre parcel comes under the jurisdiction of the city’s parks district. The garden is across the street from the city’s Jennie McConnell Park.

From its birth in 2004, the garden grew fresh produce for the Elk Grove Food Bank, which initially helped oversee its operation. In 2009, the garden became its own independent nonprofit organization, leasing its land from the city.

“It’s all about the participation and community support,” Maynard said. “And they have both.”

To celebrate its milestone, the garden will host a public party Sept. 6 with tomato tasting, community booths and family fun.

In preparation for the tomato tasting, the volunteer gardeners grew lots of extra tomatoes.

“Pink Brandywine won our taste test last year,” said volunteer Mary Ellen Trapp. “We try to do a tasting every year, but this will be our biggest. We grew Super Beefsteak, Juliet, Sun Sugar, Mortgage Lifter, Caspian Pink, Black Krim, Pomodoro, German Johnson – lots of favorites. We want people to come (to the tasting).”

She said the garden will host its first class: worm composting. “That’s been our big project this year.”

Volunteers keep coming up with new projects and finding ways to get them done.

The parcel features a children’s garden, a fruit orchard, vineyard and separate patchwork gardens dedicated to herbs, roses, perennials, water-wise Arboretum All-Stars (from the UC Davis plant series) and California native plants. Redwood arbors shade picnic benches and an outdoor kitchen with a sink to wash the freshly harvested produce.

“We have no paid staff. It’s amazing how much you can get done,” Williams said of the completed projects.

The children’s area will debut a new patio at the 10th birthday celebration, donated by System Pavers. Sunflowers and field corn form two playhouses for kids. A stand-on sundial lets them tell time with their shadows. A sensory garden and raised beds of kid-friendly veggies introduce youngsters to gardening and getting their hands dirty in a good way.

“The kids love it,” Trapp said. “They have so much fun.”

So do the grow-nup gardeners.

“It’s very peaceful,” said Trapp, who lives nearby. “You can come out here in the evening when it starts to cool off. It’s become a gathering place for the neighborhood to get together and relax.”

Added Williams, “When I’m in this garden, I can just feel my blood pressure go down.”

For such reasons, community gardens are enjoying renewed popularity, noted Maynard, who serves as president of the American Community Gardening Association.

“Community gardens are definitely on the rise,” he said. “It reflects the economy. When times are good, community gardens dry up. In 2000, we were losing gardens. Now, we’re seeing a steady increase in gardens across the nation.”

Community gardens have become an important neighborhood amenity, like parks, playgrounds or schools, he added.

“People look for gardens and ask for them from (parks departments),” Maynard said. “People want more gardens.”

The city of Sacramento will soon dedicate its 13th community garden, with plans to open a 14th next year, he said.

“Southside Community Garden is celebrating its 10th anniversary in September, too,” Maynard said. “The challenge for longevity is maintaining that interest and support. When people get into it, I tell them it’s like you adopted a new puppy. You have to take care of it or it will die.”

About 70 families take part in the Elk Grove Community Garden, which rents out 82 4-by-16-foot plots. The $40 per plot annual dues include water, and members are required to put in volunteer hours each month. The garden features 10 special plots with access for the disabled.

“That’s important,” Maynard said. “It provides outdoor therapy for the disabled community in a controlled environment that’s safe. There should be at least one in every garden.”

Most members also help tend 24 plots devoted to the Elk Grove Food Bank, which feeds about 3,300 people a month. Last year, the garden donated 5,322 pounds of fresh produce.

Those donations are very welcome, said Marie Jachino, executive director of the Elk Grove Food Bank.

“The community garden has been a great partner of the food bank,” she said. “So many of our families facing hunger are less likely to eat a nutritionally complete diet. With the ongoing support of the community garden and other growers in the area, we are taking positive steps to better fight hunger and its associated health impacts. Getting more fresh fruits and vegetables to the people we serve is the right thing to do, and we would not be able to it without the generous support of local donors, like the community garden.”

Said Trapp, “Every day, we have someone scheduled to go to the food bank. It’s a pretty efficient system. A lot of people have excess. Nobody can eat that many tomatoes.”

This garden tries to emphasize its community spirit, she noted. It’s enjoyed a lot of help from its friends.

“We receive support from the city of Elk Grove, Eagle Scouts, Coldwell Banker, Lyon Realty, Sacramento Tree Foundation, Elk Grove High School and master gardeners,” Trapp said.

Those community ties keep this garden strong.

“We can’t do anything without the support of the community,” Trapp said. “Most of us live in this neighborhood. We try to be a good neighbor. And so far, no complaints.”

Said Williams, “This was just an odd piece of ground that the city didn’t know what to do with. Our goal for the next 10 years? Just keep going – and growing.”