By Judith Bernstein

Community gardens are hardly newcomers to the United States. According to Wikipedia, the first recorded garden – and one that is still thriving, was created in the 1700s by the Moravians in Bethabara, near modern-day Winston-Salem, North Carolina. During a depression in the 1890s, Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree convinced the city and private land owners to turn over vacant lots so unemployed residents could garden and feed their families; the gardens were called “Pingree’s Potato Patches.” Through the decades, Americans planted school gardens to battle urban blight in the early 1900s, war gardens on idle land during World War I so crops could be shipped to Europe, relief gardens during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Victory Gardens to boost morale and patriotism during WW II.

In the 1970s, community gardens were part of the growing environmental and counter-culture movements. In its most current phase, community gardening is related to the movement encouraging local food production, farmers markets and community-supported agriculture.

Most community gardens in SLO County are places where people rent or use small plots of land to grow food and flowers. Some gardens are managed by a city agency while others are run by cooperatives on privately-donated land.

Reasons for starting a garden differ. The American Community Garden Association states: “In community gardening,‘community’comes first.” Gardens located on abandoned vacant lots can transform an urban eyesore into a green oasis and level the playing field for land-poor city-dwellers by giving them a place to raise fresh fruit and vegetables that are hard to obtain and often overpriced in inner-city neighborhoods. Gardens also offer opportunities for exercise for children and adults who often lead more sedentary lives and eat more processed and fast foods than in the past.

The purpose of the Paso Robles Lawn-to-Food Garden, located on the grounds of Centennial Park Community Center, is primarily educational, showing home owners how to convert a front or back yard lawn, which requires a lot of water, to a “food forest” which requires less. The project which was approved this October by the City Council is a one-year agreement between Transition Towns Paso Robles’ Food Group and the City’s Library & Recreation Department.

The garden is sponsored by Transition Towns Paso Robles, part of an international movement that  started in England five years ago. There are now about 200 official “Transition Towns” (TT) internationally (including Paso and San Luis Obispo). The purpose of Transition Towns is to meet three challenges of our times – peak oil, economic instability and climate change. To meet that goal, communities need to become less reliant on goods that are brought in from far away, including fresh produce and other food. An interruption of the food supply –  whether the cause be war, climate change, water shortage, economic crises or a rise in oil prices, would leave a local community vulnerable. TT Food Group member Rosalie Wolff points out that a community garden is a prime example of local resiliency and self-reliance:

“It’s important to have local systems in place so that during economic downturns and climate change, you are far less vulnerable. In future years, the cost of imported food will rise when oil prices go up….”

Aside from addressing the Transition Town goals, having fun and producing delicious food will be a perk for participants. Anna Rempel, one of the garden’s designers with Jim Cole, notes “Nothing tastes better than home grown food, not even food from a farmer’s market.” And Group member Maggie Macro hopes to recapture her experience when people from Oak Creek Commons Co-housing created a food forest together:

“I was inspired by the sense of community we had building it, especially when we passed rocks in a chain. There was a festival feeling with shared food and live music, and I’d like to see that atmosphere when we work on the garden project at Centennial Park.”

In its first phase (2009-2010), the garden will measure approximately 3500 square feet; a second phase would expand the area. This winter, the lawn will be covered by squares of cardboard and mulch. In spring, the grass will be have decomposed and planting can begin. The food forest will have three layers: fruit trees such as pistachio, persimmon, apricot, fig and almond are the tallest. The middle layer will be drought-tolerant shrubs and the lowest will be  vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, chard and carrots. There will also be grape arbors over the existing picnic tables. For windbreaks, the group will plant guava and pomegranate trees. The food forest will be watered by drip irrigation, which will use less water than the existing lawn.

Work on the garden’s creation and maintenance will be performed by community volunteers, school groups, and people who sign up for classes with the Paso Robles Library and Recreation Services. The first class is a fruit tree planting workshop on January 23. [see ad in this issue]

In addition to physical involvement, the TT Food Group hopes to get material such as hoses, wheelbarrows, fencing wire, plants and funds donated by businesses, service organizations and individuals.  Food Group members are also talking to local service organizations like the Paso Rotary, the Multi Flora Club and the Optimists.

Originally, the Food Group wanted to create a garden with plots for individual use. While City staff were enthusiastic about this concept, the County was in the third year of a drought, and water issues were paramount. It became clear that several possible sites for a traditional garden would require installing new water systems. Centennial Park already had water hookups that needed only minor alternations for the garden’s drip irrigation system.

The garden’s creators caution that although the garden will soon benefit the Paso community in terms of education, provision of vegetables (a portion of which will be donated to the San Luis Obispo Food Bank) and saving water, it  could take two or three years until the fruit trees and drought-resistant plants mature, so Paso Roblans shouldn’t expect to see a Garden of Eden at Centennial by summer 2010. But if things go well the first year, the Food Group hopes to renew its agreement with the City and expand the garden.

In the meantime, the Food Group and City’s staff, including Ann Robb, Director of Library and Recreation Services who helped shepherd the garden through the approval process, are excited about the new garden. Jim App, the City Manager, puts the hopes for the community garden in a nutshell (pun intended):

“It’s highly anticipated as a catalyst for home, neighborhood and even community development. One yard at a time, we can transform the way we live, lessen our demands on the planet, and create a more sustainable way of life.”

For more information on the demonstration garden plans and how to become involved, contact Rosalie Wolff at 237-8972.