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Growing conversation: Capital Public Radio garden produces more than food

Tour Capital Public Radio's new food garden

Tashina Brito of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento gives a short tour of the radio station's new food garden, which took the place of a lawn.
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Tashina Brito of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento gives a short tour of the radio station's new food garden, which took the place of a lawn.

These vegetables give them something to talk about – and that was the whole idea.

When staff members and volunteers at Capital Public Radio first floated the idea of turning an unused lawn into an edible garden, they envisioned much more than tomatoes and squash. In the farm-to-fork capital, they wanted to start a serious conversation about food.

“During planning, someone asked, ‘Do we really need another vegetable garden in Sacramento?’ ” recalled Tashina Brito, who serves as the station’s garden volunteer coordinator. “But this is about a lot more than growing tomatoes. This is about food security, food access, knowing where our food comes from. This gives us a seat at the table when we have those conversations in our community.”

And the tomatoes? Those are a delicious bonus, benefiting local food banks.

“Isn’t this cool?” said Rick Eytcheson, Cap Radio’s general manager. “Right outside my window, I can see this beautiful garden plus the bees, birds, butterflies. I love the lizards! We never used to have lizards. But this garden brought back wildlife.”

Designed by California State University, Sacramento, students, the garden covers about two-thirds of an acre behind Cap Radio’s headquarters on the university campus. Formerly covered with Bermuda grass, the round site had been intended for an antenna tower, but that was erected elsewhere.

That left the radio station with a large circular patch of unused lawn. During California’s prolonged drought, that turf became a big, brown makeover target.

“That lawn used 600 gallons of water to irrigate every time we watered,” said Paul Adams, the station’s director of underwriting and an avid gardener. “So, the origins of this garden came from two different directions – save water, but also to create a conversation piece to talk about our region.”

Staffed by volunteers, the garden represents an opener to such topics as agriculture, integrated pest management, farming practices and food security, Adams explained.

“It’s so special in how it reflects our region,” said Cap Radio spokeswoman Constance Crawford. “Seattle, you might build a coffee shop. Here, we grow food.”

Craig McMurray, Cap Radio’s director of foundation and corporate partnerships, really made the garden’s food literacy vision grow, Adams said. He helped put together a garden advisory panel and found community support to create the garden without tapping funds from station subscribers.

For example, Green Acres Nursery & Supply donated plants, tools, supplies and lots of advice. Other legacy sponsors include Nugget Markets, Kaiser Permanente, Union Pacific, UC Davis, Regional Water Authority and the California Endowment.

“This garden truly is a labor of love,” said Green Acres’ Greg Gayton, a frequent visitor to the garden. “Besides helping by underwriting and sponsoring, we’re also having a lot of fun. Our stores bring staff over here to get some real-world experience – to see how things grow, pest control, what works, what doesn’t. That helps us, too. It’s a win-win-win situation from all sides.”

Laid out in concentric circles, the concrete block raised beds double as an amphitheater for outdoor events. “The beds give us instant seating,” Crawford said. “And it smells good, too.”

Launched in October 2014, the garden has been amazingly bountiful. Last summer, it produced about a ton of food, with 1,200 pounds donated to the River City and Sacramento food banks. This season, it’s already surpassed the 2,000-pound mark in donations. Plans are in the works to donate some produce to Sacramento State’s food pantry for students.

At the same time, the water savings keep adding up, Brito said. “Now, we’re using just half the water the lawn used, and getting so much more.”

Four days a week, food bank and student volunteers glean the raised beds for ripe tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables to donate to needy families. On Fridays, Cap Radio staff get their turn to pick and enjoy the produce growing steps from their desks.

It’s so special in how it reflects our region. Seattle, you might build a coffee shop. Here, we grow food.

Constance Crawford, Capital Public Radio spokeswoman, on the Cap Radio garden

“We started as a salsa garden: All tomatoes, peppers and onions,” Brito said. “This spring, we expanded with a lot more crops, like kiwis and melons. It’s been educational for us, too. Who knew how fast eggplant grows?”

The biggest surprise? “Okra!” she exclaimed. “It’s such a pretty plant!”

“People don’t realize it’s delicious, too,” Crawford added.

As part of its expansion, the garden now features dozen of fruit trees from Dave Wilson and Four Winds nurseries, a large section devoted to fragrant herbs and several bee hives, surrounded by flowers the bees love. Those busy bees produced 40 pounds of honey for their first harvest.

Like everything in this garden, the hives serve a dual purpose. Inside the hives is a “bee cam” that tracks and records their activity. Via that remote camera, students can watch the bees in their home.

“It’s targeted at elementary school programs in Sacramento school districts,” Adams said. “A class can adopt a bee hive without renting a bus to visit it.”

For visitors and volunteers, interpretative signage explains the vegetable varieties and identifies flowers and trees.

“Groups can tour the garden, too,” Crawford said. (Just contact the station at Capradio.org.)

“That’s another educational component,” Brito said. “This garden has become a gathering place. No one wanted to tour the lawn.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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