By Selena Larson
For 25 years, plants have flourished in Tempe Councilwoman Onnie Shekerjian’s backyard. It was there that the idea blossomed to create a garden that the community could enjoy, a place for people to come together, grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and get to know one another.
“In the Phoenix-Metro area, we build walls around our yards that separate us from each other,” Shekerjian says. “Working in a garden lets you get to know your neighbors.”
Community gardens are sprouting up all over the country, and the East Valley is no exception. These popular areas are used in a variety of ways, from donating food to homeless shelters, to giving back to low-income school children.
In Tempe, Councilwoman Shekerjian was a big supporter of giving these gardens roots in the city. The community garden at Escalante Park is a city partnership with a non-profit organization that welcomes community members of all stripes to get their hands dirty and grow some organic produce. So far, Shekerjian says, it has been quite a success.
Other community gardens in Tempe include Friends in Gasca Gardens, or FIGG, a garden at Warner and Kyrene roads thriving on neighborhood land donated by a community member, and Harvest for Humanity at Guadalupe and Rural roads, a non-profit organization that gives its produce to local food banks and those in need. Harvest for Humanity is also collaborating with the city of Chandler to create a community garden in downtown Chandler on one of the unoccupied city-owned lots.
The city of Mesa is gearing up for its own community garden as well. The city has recently introduced its Mesa initiative to build a community garden in the downtown area. They have reached out to the Mesa community to create a plan for the future garden.
“We want to bring vibrancy to the area,” says Donna DiFrancesco, conservation specialist at the city of Mesa. “We want to see community connections and diversity in the garden.”
The goal of the project is to connect people and the benefits of gardening. Right now, there are a few community gardens in Mesa where the community benefits are reaped. From work programs and juvenile probation, to homeless shelters and educational institutions, the cooperation and product that is coming out of the local gardens has a large impact on the surrounding area.
The city is asking for ideas for funding sources, location, and partnership proposals to begin building the garden. The garden will hopefully be open to the public in the fall.
The idea of community gardening isn’t unique to city areas, but colleges and universities are growing their own plants and produce with the help of student and faculty support.
Arizona State University boasts gardens on both its Tempe and Polytechnic campuses, and Mesa Community College grows produce on a large lot as well. At the ASU Polytechnic campus in east Mesa, over 100 people have been involved in the project, and contributions from Chandler-Gilbert Community College’s plant science classes, ASU’s plant and agriculture science classes, key leadership at ASU, and community members have allowed the garden to flourish.
“Having interactive gardens at ASU are valuable for nutritious food, amicable gathering spaces, and offer us a venue for knowledge exchange,” says Jehnifer Niklas, program coordinator for the ASU Sustainability Practices office.
The campus dining partner works to incorporate the produce grown on campus gardens into dining programs, including orange flavored salad dressing and date bars. The Phoenix Zoo has also received some of the citrus grown at the ASU community gardens to help supplement the animals’ diets.
“I like to tell students that learning to grow organic food is a skill they might actually want to use post-graduation someday when they settle into their future communities,” Niklas says.
Organic gardening is not a new fad, but it has become more popular in recent years. As concerns about processed food continue to increase, growing organic produce in backyards and gardens has become a popular alternative.
Communities across the nation are also looking for ways to reduce waste and cut costs. It just so happens community gardens can help with both.
In Tempe, the green waste composting program hopes to save the city $300,000 when established citywide. The pilot program now encompasses four to six neighborhoods, where waste is collected and taken to Singh Farms in Scottsdale to compost. The compost is then brought back to the community to use in parks, including Escalante’s community garden.
The city of Tempe is gearing up for another introduction to the community garden family. As part of the clean up of the Mill on Mill Avenue and Fifth Street, the city has partnered with Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability to create the garden. It will be used for gardening practice and help sustainability students better understand agriculture in urban areas.
“This area is such a big part of our past, but also a part of our present and future,” Shekerjian says. “And down the road, it will be a great backdrop for a farmers market.”
As community gardening becomes more widespread, the hope is that more people will be involved. Not only do gardens provide fresh, organic produce, but they are an outlet for neighbors to get to know one another in a cooperative, positive environment.