MODESTO — The empty lot seemed so easy to tame. Gather a few neighbors, plant a few seeds and reap the rewards of a community garden.
"The idea came through a conversation with my neighbor," said Ryan Richards.
But Richards and friends John Hickerson and Stephanie Edge discovered that having a vision is easy implementing it takes initiative and know-how. Because this was Modesto-owned property, there were city requirements to navigate, donations to solicit for startup costs and, of course, the management, maintenance and participation of the garden itself.
"I brought the idea to my church community at La Loma Brethren and got backing from a group interested in investing in our local neighborhood," said Richards, 27, a teacher. The approximately 70-by-100-foot plot on Encina Avenue, down the street from La Loma Junior High School, had been an eyesore for years, he said.
The group began discussions with the city in January and started planning for the garden in March. The group has provisional approval, said Julie Hannon, with Modesto Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods, and must follow zoning laws. It must avoid blight and be aware of property boundaries.
Community gardens have a long history of bringing people together and improving land. In Richards' case, an eyesore went from being someone else's problem to a challenge for himself and his neighbors, with 70-plus people having signed up to help so far, he said.
Community gardens began in the 1890s, first in Detroit, as a way to provide land to the unemployed and teach civics and good work habits to youth, according to the University of Missouri Extension. They were known as victory gardens during World War II before losing favor. In the 1970s, urban decay and the need to rebuild neighborhoods led to a rebirth of community gardens. These days, people want to know where their food comes from.
Hannon said that while there are plenty of gardens at schools, there aren't many such ventures in Modesto. The West Modesto King-Kennedy Neighborhood Collaborative has one in the works near the King-Kennedy Memorial Center, she said, and the Church of the Cross on Dale Road established one more than a decade ago.
Here's what Richards has to say to others interested in starting something similar:
Q: Is there a fee? A duty schedule?
A: There is no fee for "membership." We approach the plot as somewhat of a communal effort no binding contracts or monetary dues, just a good-faith pledge to help on the dates signed for. Our mantra is "many hands, light work." Thus, we have one-week slots where neighbors sign up to help. They (with seven other neighbors) visit the site at their convenience during the week. They pick produce and weeds.
Q: How do you deal with tools? Who buys plants?
A: We currently have the need for some tools and a place to store them. Previously, we have walked our own tools down to the site. Some church members have lent tractors and other gas-powered tools when needed. As we charge forward, we will make the decisions concerning tools, storage, etc. As of right now, a small group of us has purchased the plants and signs and irrigation system out of pocket. While this is not our long-term goal, we would prefer to show the neighborhood what we are doing before we ask for any donations.
Q: What types of questions should someone ask if they want to join your effort?
A: Neighbors should ask themselves if they would like to feel a larger sense of community. They should ask if they can donate a small portion of time to improve their neighborhood. They should ask what they would prefer with the empty plots. It seems like we are all uncomfortable with the crime and eroding sense of community and city pride. If you can donate a couple hours over the course of one week, you can do a little bit to improve some of those big issues.
Q: Are there liability issues?
A: Neighbors garden at their own risk. I do not foresee any specific issues, but know that such issues are possible. We are choosing to move forward on faith, rather than fear.
Q: What's the most important thing you've learned during this process?
A: Charge forward, ignore naysayers, trust what you feel called to do. I am amazed at how when you believe the best about your community and churches, and build on the positive, you can do big things.
Bee staff writer Sharon K. Ghag can be reached at (209) 578-2340 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
The University of Missouri Extension offers a Community Garden Toolkit booklet. Download it at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fmpt/ downloads/45968.pdf.
Community Seed Tool Kits are available at www.seedmatters.org.