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West Valley City Journal

Gardens provide neighborhoods with food, community

Jun 16, 2016 08:10AM ● By Bryan Scott

Kay Robison, left, and Rhiannon Hickenlooper work together to repair a damaged irrigation line in Hickenlooper’s garden at the Vegetable Mining Operation in Hillsdale Park.—Rachel Molenda

By Rachel Molenda | [email protected]

Community gardens provide their neighborhoods with opportunities to get outside and grow food. But many residents find out its about more than just tomatoes once they get started, said Susan Finlayson.

“One thing that I hear a lot is, ‘All I wanted to do is grow some tomatoes, and in the end I realized it was about so much more than that,’ ” said Finalyson, who is the community garden program director at Wasatch Community Gardens. “That kind of component of community gardening is what holds it together and makes it successful.”

The Vegetable Mining Operation at Hillsdale Park in West Valley City is no different.

The garden was started by residents in 2013 and is part of the Parks for Produce program, a Salt Lake County initiative that identified vacant property ideal for growing food.

Gardener Kay Robison has been there since the beginning.

“I heard about this one being started … and I thought it’d be a great way to meet neighbors, and  I have. At least the gardening neighbors,” Robison said.

Robison gardens with six other friends, growing potatoes, spinach and tomatoes, among other things, between themselves. They share the food and work together to preserve it. Gardening with friends also makes everyday tasks a little less lonely.

“It’s easier to do all the chores with company that it is by yourself. You surely can. I’ve done it, believe me. But it’s nicer to have people do it with you,” Robison said.

The garden had its start on the once dilapidated tennis court it sits beside. The first year was successfully, but growing in raised beds on an impermeable surface wasn’t ideal, Robison said.

“It was kind of a challenge because watering is different and we could see water running out from underneath the beds. The soil that they gave us is quite sandy, which is nice in many respects, but it’s not nice for holding water,” Robison said.

With demand for a new tennis court, the garden was moved to a plot of land next door and has done well since, Robison said.

There are 25 plots at the Hillsdale space. A few of them are accessible for those who use wheelchairs. They’ve been built higher for easy reaching and are surrounded by a concrete pad, to make getting around easier.

While Wasatch Community Gardens provides infrastructure and resources to its gardens, gardeners who have rented plots oversee daily operations.

“It’s like sort of the analogy I usually use is: you had some property and you dug up the soil and you threw some seeds and tools into it but it’s not going to turn into the garden. It’s the people that are gardening that make it a garden,” Finlayson said.

Wasatch Community Gardens has more than 30 gardens in its network this year, most of which are overseen by the organization. Others are at schools throughout the Wasatch Front or receive resources in the form of leadership training and access to minigrants.

The application process is rolling, so people can apply to start gardens at any time of the year. No new community gardens have been started in about two years, said Parks for Produce coordinator Giles Larsen, largely due to a lack of applications. Those the organization has received have not met the standards required to start one.

“There’s only a certain demand capacity in an area, and that’s what my program really depends on. Because I need these gardens to be full, I need that pool of volunteers to be there, I can’t just go and start a garden anywhere,” Larsen said.

The organization won’t start any gardens in neighborhoods where there’s not interest. Residents are charged with developing a plan for the garden and vetting neighbors to determine how many want the garden there.

“For a community to get the support that we provide it’s a pretty robust application process. So people really have to demonstrate that there’s a serious demand that will fill up all those plots,” Larsen said.

One of the challenges of having a community garden is ensuring gardeners get the food they grow. Growers at Hillsdale frequently experience theft from their gardens, a sign that people in the neighborhood are struggling, Robison said.

“Judging by the amount of theft we have, I can only imagine people are hurting for food,” Robison said.

While the garden is on public property and passersby are able to visit, gardeners rent their plots and put their own funds into the food that’s grown there.

“A community garden is not a place where anyone can just come in and help themselves,” Larsen said. “And this is part of a process. When we come into a community where a community garden has never existed, part of the process is that educational component that, ‘Hey, a community garden is a place where you rent an area. And when you come to this space, each of these plots is rented by an individual or a family and they’re putting in a ton of work so don’t take their food.’ It’s really dispiriting.”

Some gardens, including the Hillsdale space, have “you pick it” fences to discourage theft at the gardens. Food grown along the fence is grown for anyone to take.

“If it looked even vaguely ripe it was gone. So I think this is meeting a need. I mean, it’s kind of a nuisance for us who are paying for a plot but people are hungry,” Robison said.

The better the garden looks, the more people are likely to take food from the plots, she added.

“Our last year on the concrete it looked pretty scabby. People didn’t even bother to come in,” Robison said. “[Here] people go out with bags, huge bags full of everything they recognize as food.”

Plots in the community gardens range in price from $15 to $40, and can be rented for the entire year. Wasatch Community Gardens also offers low-cost workshops with opportunities to receive scholarships.

What a community garden’s purpose is boiled down to is pretty simple.

“It’s just getting to work with people who love working in the dirt, building community and growing food,” Finalyson said.

For more information on how to garden in your community, visit