I am often grateful when I visit community gardens where there are generous gardeners willing to share and who follow a few rules. Where there is a scarcity of gardeners, unwilling to engage weeds or one another, there is a path to abandonment.
At the exuberant Chuckanut Center in Bellingham, Washington, there was steadfast evidence of digging, sowing, planting, weeding, harvesting, collaboration and sociability. In late July, Ali Mathews, the garden’s coordinator, gave me a tour on a sunny, mild Saturday morning. (Ali co-founded Holbrook Farm and Nursery with me in 1980. She knows her way around a garden.)
The 16 garden plots, a crazy quilt of shapes and sizes, are a feast for eyes as well as for Bellingham dinner tables: Scarlet runner pole beans, cardoons, golden squash blooms, Dakota black popcorn, grapes, brambles and orbs of gray-green opium poppy seed pods, and 40” tall blue-flowering borage. I also laid eyes on my first, small hugel garden and a tree collard.
Weeds were given a little room but not much
John Egbert kept an eye on weedy purslane growing at his feet. He showed me a three-ring binder full of weedy information he’d compiled, entitled “The Bounty Within,” that is kept for handy reference near the entrance to the deer-proof fenced-in, 4/5th-acre garden. Burdock, lamb’s quarters, and other weeds are not only identified and photographed but are welcome in the garden—to an extent. The Love-the-Edible-Weeds-You’re-With approach works if profiled misfits don’t become too frolicsome.
Egbert began gardening in earnest during the late 1960s during the countercultural shift towards self-sufficiency. So did Mathews. Ruth Stout and Robert Rodale were apostles. “By the early 1970’s, I was raising food next to my Cambridge, MA, apartment, and soon chiles and corn in New Mexico, for the next 45 years,” Egbert said. “I ventured into apples, apricots, peaches, as well as the typical range of vegetables, plus okra, melons, and black beans. As a native plant addict, I grew excessive numbers of penstemon species, shrubs, and other perennials.”
Egbert moved to Bellingham in 2016 and signed up for a garden plot at the Chuckanut Center in 2018. A few years later he suggested a revamped Victory Garden, like ones adopted during war times, but targeted differently. Egbert is curious and energetic. Mathews joined the effort, and then another, and now there is a “fluid group” of six who pitch in for their foodbank-based program.
“Over the years the harvested distributions have been handled differently,” Mathews said. “Now we pick every Tuesday, wash and weigh the produce. Then it goes to either the Food bank, where folks in their program can come pick up food, or the Lighthouse Mission, a large soup kitchen and shelter, or any of the three tiny homes in Bellingham, who house the homeless and help them move on to more permanent housing.” An estimated 1000 lbs. of shared produce per year is not small potatoes. Drip irrigation has helped enormously, and the garden beds have benefited from an onsite wellspring of rich compost—the “fertility bank.”
The past few years the Chuckanut Center has partnered, with another Bellingham non-profit called Sustainable Connections, as a part of their food recovery program. “They collect food from restaurants that would have been thrown away and send it out to folks who need it.” Mathews told me there will soon be a large party celebrating one million pounds of saved food that would have gone to the dump.
The gift of good continues. “We are partnered with the middle school across the street, who have their own raised beds in the garden,” Mathews told me. “They have a teacher I work with, and the kids do volunteer work, and grow a few things from seed. Sunflowers, squash, beans and pumpkins this year.”
You can garden
consciousness. You can’t
predict the poem, but in
the poem will erupt.
–Chad Sweeney via Camille Dungy
Hugel garden and a tree collard
Mathews told me about the tree collard a year ago. I had long imagined collard greens to be the purview of southern USA gardeners. She gave me cuttings plant and I failed to root them on my windowsill in Louisville. Undaunted, I wanted to know more. A tree collard sounded like Jack and his magical bean stalk.
Alas, this year I discovered John Egbert’s tree collard was a small tree— a multi-stemmed dwarf tree collard less than three-feet tall, not quite what I had pictured. Nevertheless, I’ve added this to my long list of must-have seeds and plants for 2024.
My sense of adventure for discovering and planting the unknown feels limitless for reasons I can’t always fathom. Failures? Often. I carry on.
I’m already dreaming of climbing a stepladder to pick collard greens from a ten-foot tall Brassica next year.
It’s a long shot, but…
I think I can, I think I can…
Chuckanut Center’s community garden, in a world distracted and polarized, is a growing contradiction.
A heaping helping of hopefulness, selflessness, fresh food, and flowers goes a long way.