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  • 22 Dec 2014

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Garden plots help city harvest a sense of community

Waiting lists don't deter supporters from tilling new ground
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT A work party of volunteers helped prepare Frazer Community Garden for its opening last Saturday. Frazer is one of five to open this year.

First, there was opposition from other park users. Then asphalt had to be removed and soil had to be decontaminated. Money had to be raised, neighbors notified.

Finally, after three years, the Frazer Community Garden in the Rose City Park neighborhood is set to open - one of five Portland Parks and Recreation community gardens that will open this spring and summer as part of the city's effort to create 1,000 new garden plots by the end of this year.

'It was a labor of love,' says Tamara Deridder, a Northeast Portland land-use planner who instigated the idea and saw it through to the finish. A work party Saturday drew about 25 volunteers helping to compost and ready the garden for its April 28 grand opening.

Deridder thinks creating a community garden as a gathering space - as well as for the practical purpose of growing veggies - is just as critical now as it was three years ago.

'We're going through a pretty harsh economic reality in our community,' she says. 'There's a lot of folks working with their families on less income. … We're just doing something that those without land couldn't necessarily do for themselves.'

The city has 39 community gardens, covering 19 acres. Fifteen of them are in such high demand, there is at least a three-year waiting list, because people typically hang on to their plots for a long time.

Those uber-popular gardens are mostly in inner Northeast and Southeast Portland, where space for gardens isn't always available and interest in gardening is the highest: Beach, Boise Eliot, Buckman, Clinton, Colonel Summers, Everett, Front and Curry, Ivon, Kennedy, Patton, Sabin, Sellwood, Sewallcrest, Vermont Hills and Water and Gibbs.

The gardens in North Portland and outer East Portland aren't as filled up, and there are fewer of them. In the name of geographic equity, Portland Parks and Recreation has been tackling that disparity by opening 1,000 new garden plots by the end of this year. Plots are being added in areas underserved by community gardens as well as in the most desired gardening locations.

All but 300 of the new plots have already opened; the rest are on tap for spring, summer and fall. This spring and summer five new gardens are set to open; existing gardens are also being subdivided into smaller ones, which are easier to manage for newer gardeners.

'It's not about providing a family's vegetable needs for a year,' says Laura Niemi, the community gardens program coordinator. 'It's about getting into the community talking about gardening, learning from others, doing a different type of recreation.'

This spring, just nine of the city's community gardens have plots available for signup: Berrydale, Brentwood, Clarendon, Ed Benedict, Furey, Hazelwood, Lents, McCoy and Senn's.

Two of those -Clarendon (North Fessenden and Van Houten) and Ed Benedict (Southeast 104th Avenue and Powell Boulevard) - are new, set to open March 17 and June 3, respectively.

Besides Frazer (Northeast 52nd Avenue and Hassalo Street), two others are under construction: Errol Heights (4841 S.E. Tenino Drive) opens May 20; Grant (2245 N.E. 36th Ave.) will open by late May.

The Clarendon garden comes from the efforts of the Portsmouth Neighborhood Association, which wanted to reactivate the vacant school building space after the school was shuttered in 2006. It's since been a magnet for vandalism. The city is reaching out to families and staff from Cesar Chavez K-8 School - where Clarendon students were reassigned to - to fill the 25 plots at the 5,000-square-foot garden, one of the city's smallest.

A sense of hope

The city began going gangbusters with community garden expansion in 2009, when Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the parks bureau, created an initiative to open 1,000 additional plots by the end of 2012.

The 'climate action' goal includes $225,000 in matching funds from the city. Some of the sites - including the soon-to-open gardens at Clarendon, Ed Benedict and Kenton (North Houghton and Burrage streets) - also receive boosts from the Portland Development Commission's urban renewal money.

The average cost to start each garden is $30,000 to $45,000, considering that it covers everything from permanent fencing, soil amendments, irrigation, a water meter and a maintenance shed on site.

The nonprofit Friends of Community Gardens works with people trying to seek grants for their neighborhood gardens. Other organizations and businesses also donate their time, funds and in-kind materials to see gardens to fruition.

At Frazer, Deridder says she started with a request to the neighborhood association board, of which she is co-chairwoman of the land-use and transportation committee. There had been efforts to create a neighborhood community garden in the past, which always failed for various reasons.

She plugged away. The first meeting attracted just eight people. At another meeting, dog park advocates worried that a community garden at Frazer Park would impose on their space.

But locating at Rose City Park School - now temporarily housing displaced Marysville Elementary students - wasn't an option, since the future use of the school is up in the air, Deridder says.

Deridder kept homing in on Frazer Park as a location, and designed it on 10,000 square feet of asphalt that was too small for other uses. She sought the help of the nonprofit Friends of Community Gardens, which raised $22,000 for the project, including large grants from the East Multnomah Soil and Conservation District and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The city also saw the project through. When soil tests showed three times the amount of allowable lead on the site, the city's Bureau of Environmental Services ordered a federal Brownfields investigation.

Several soil samples came up with levels safe enough to proceed after two feet of subsoil was excavated and replaced with fresh soil.

Recently, Deridder helped distribute 500 fliers in the community before sign-ups, targeting the apartment buildings within walking distance.

The 36 plots filled up in 45 minutes, she says, and there's a long waiting list.

'The amount of excitement was huge,' she says. 'It's so important for folks to have that option.'