Collective cultivation

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2010

Brad Robbins wholeheartedly believes "if you build it, they will come."

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

That's the approach he's taken as he works with community members and local experts to create two new community gardens in the Douglas area.

Neither project is being encouraged by voices or divine intervention, but instead by a neighborhood's interest and desire to cultivate local produce, opportunities for education and a healthful way of life.

Across Gastineau Channel, a similar story is being echoed as residents of Starr Hill enter the planning stages of a community garden of their own.

Darren Snyder, a cooperative extension agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is involved with both projects. He's offering expertise, advice and support. It's a role he said he's happy to play and one he said is vital to ensuring that both the gardens and groups are productive and successful.

"It's an important niche, to have these pocket community gardens," he said. "(But) it's also important to understand the level of interest ... and that it's a lot of work, no matter how you do it."

Robbins, who has a graduate degree in agricultural economics, has been volunteering his time for the two gardens in Douglas since late May. One is located on "B" Street and the other on Crow Hill. Both sites are currently being prepared, but he still isn't sure exactly what he'll be able to offer to interested members.

"We feel like we have a good core of folks who are getting things moving," he said. "We still don't know what size of plots we can offer because we don't know the true amount of interest we have. On the administrative side we have a post office box, we're trying to get a bank account, we're trying to set up bylaws and we hope to nominate a board and officers pretty soon."

It's the commitment and level of interest that Snyder said is key to making a community garden work because is goes beyond just planting a seed and walking away.

"There's responsibility to the group; weeding, fixing fencing, turning the compost pile ... there's a lot of individualism, but also a fair amount of teamwork involved," he said.

But that's Snyder's job, to help make locally-grown produce a reality for neighborhoods who are willing to weather the work and overcome the challenges. And when Starr Hill residents Deb Gregoire and Claire Richardson came to him a few weeks ago with the idea to turn a dog-walking hot spot into a quaint community garden, he helped get them pointed in the right direction.

"It's small, but it's perfect for growing," he said. "There's other things going on in the park there and there's no intention to take away that play space. With any of these projects we're trying to balance between community interest, engagement and not biting off more than we can chew."

The space, located just above Chicken Yard park in downtown Juneau is roughly eight feet wide and about 50 feet long, Snyder said. They currently have the green light from the city, who owns the land, but the group still has to figure out where to put the water and compost pile, who will construct the gate and fence and how exactly the group itself will be structured.

The Douglas Island Community Gardens are a bit further along. Both plots of land are privately owned, and with use granted and the liability off the land-owners, work has been progressing.

Robbins said the Crow Hill land, which is owned by the Crossroads Community Church, is oval in shape and the group is nearly finished with the preparation phase. He credits the philanthropic efforts of Minister Travis Reed and a couple groups that "showed up in droves and built boxes that are half filled with soil and waiting for spent grains." They still need a water source, a tool shed and tools, he said.

In the "B" Street location, permission to use the land was granted by owners Charles and Paula Rorhbacher. The group has just finished excavating the area and clearing a few trees. Some were donated for firewood, and others are being used to create terraces.

"We're waiting on the results of a soil sample," Robbins said. "That will tell us if we need to build raised beds, but we think that it's going to be good soil."

Once they get the soil results back, Robbins said they'll complete the bed construction, build a shed and lock in a water source.

Wednesday night they placed signage on both sites, courtesy of Lauren Anderson and the kids participating in her Treadwell Camp. Snyder said that Anderson wove some gardening curriculum into her camp teachings this year, which has already spurred some interested and budding young gardeners.

"That's our intention," Snyder said. "To let kids have first-hand contact with life and what it takes to nurture life by having something tasty to eat. It is a lifelong lesson. We are intending for the (Douglas Community Gardens) to be used by the Montessori School and Gastineau Elementary."

With two new community gardens getting underway, the tally now comes to four total in the Juneau area, which includes the Juneau Community Garden and the Glory Hole rooftop garden.

Snyder encourages other community members interested in similar projects to contact the Cooperative Extension office.

"Now, more than ever, we are isolated in our living environment," he said. "Whether it be for day-to-day hunger, or emergency response, being able to grow our own food may someday be more important than we know."

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at

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