Growing together

Volunteer Coordinator Sue Middagh picks up buckets of weeds

The fertile, three-quarter-acre lot that’s home to Gilroy’s
community garden may be right in the thick of downtown, but it’s
light years away from the tumult of everyday life.
The fertile, three-quarter-acre lot that’s home to Gilroy’s community garden may be right in the thick of downtown, but it’s light years away from the tumult of everyday life.

“Peace happens in a garden,” said Judy Hess, the director of the Gilroy Arts Alliance Demonstration Garden, which sits on Eigleberry Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. “Wouldn’t it be so cool if this becomes a place where all Gilroy’s problems fall away.”

A siren blared in the distance and the occasional car horn honked as Hess meandered through the garden Tuesday afternoon, pointing out freshly planted seasonal vegetables. Like the harmonious relationship between the corn, which “steals” nitrogen from the soil; beans, which replenish the soil with the essential element; and pumpkins, which provide ground cover, the garden attracts residents from every walk of life who each have a special talent to contribute.

“Community is what we want to develop here, and it’s working,” said Hess, using her gardening gloves to gesture to Fred Harer, a volunteer who was installing a decorative bridge the local Girl Scout troop would use later that evening for a ceremony.

Harer, a stay-at-home dad, volunteers in the garden several times a week and often brings his 11-month-old daughter with him. He heard about the garden through, a nonprofit website that allows people to exchange “stuff for free” in their own communities. He decided he could do more than just donate pots and gardening supplies. He could donate his time.

“I like being in the garden and I like helping,” he said, taking a short break from arranging large rocks around the edge of a small creek. “I have all these ideas and I was hoping I could help them out.”

The garden grew from a project of Leadership Gilroy, a nine-month program that grooms community members for leadership roles, and celebrated its official opening day on June 5. Since then, the garden has taken on a life of its own, said Hess, who has big dreams for the plot of land she’s helped transform from a dusty, vacant lot into an oasis.

“Why can’t Gilroy be the mecca for how to do organic, healthy living for the world?” she said, pointing out how the abundance of plants flourishing in the garden receive only the essentials: water, compost, rich soil and sunlight.

“Everything that we do here is organic so no chemicals allowed,” Hess said, ripping off a leaf of radicchio from a sprout in the garden’s “salad bar” and popping it into her mouth.

The concept of the garden is simple. Community members who volunteer their time are allowed to select some of the fruits of their labor to take home to their families, free of charge. Community members that can’t find the time to volunteer may purchase produce from the garden. Ten percent of what’s grown is donated to St. Joseph’s Family Center and another large chunk is sold to Lizarran Tapas Restaurant just a block away. The garden also fuels a variety of educational programs for school groups and summer camps on composting, seasonal growing and nutrition.

One of Hess’s favorite memories is of a child whose eyes lit up when tasting a tomato straight from the garden.

“A tomato at the store is nothing like a tomato grown in the garden,” she said.

The experience of coming across tomatoes from Chile and Mexico at the supermarket never ceases to amaze Hess. Situated in one of the richest growing regions on the planet, Californians shouldn’t have to look past their own backyards for sustenance, she said.

True, you might miss the taste of fresh tomatoes once winter rolls in, but Gilroyans can trade summer flavors for crops such as kale, brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and broccoli, she said.

“We want to talk about eating for the seasons,” Hess said. “We want to teach people how to do this at home. What if every community could do this – if each community could take care of their own.”

Though the garden’s organizers already have their plates full with upcoming community events, they’re aiming to establish a farmers market and consumer supported agriculture program come spring. Year-round classes will complete the mix.

Unlike Hess, Program Director Katie Hogan may have a brown thumb, but her vision is as green as can be. Formerly an English teacher, Hogan hopes to earn her master’s degree in health and wellness education and saw the community garden as a perfect place to get her feet wet.

“To be able to see 5- and 6-year-olds pick vegetables and walk to Lizarran a block away to make lunch – it was phenomenal,” she said, describing a field trip with a group of day campers who watched as one of the restaurant’s chefs transformed their harvest into a delicious lunch of paella and salad.

What started as a grassroots effort to create a community garden has blossomed into so much more, the directors agreed.

“A garden isn’t just plants,” Hogan said. “There’s so much that goes into it and everyone can contribute. It’s become a real community center.”

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