Santa Fe Community Gardens: A Labor of Love

| - August 17, 2011

At the City Different’s community gardens, neighborhood residents coax produce from the desert

Under a punishing summer sun, Duskin Jasper digs a two-foot-deep hole in the ground, fills it with organic fertilizer and gently lowers a tomato plant into it. In the fall, the plant, along with the others he has planted in his two 10 x 13-foot plots in the Milagro Community Garden, will yield several basketfuls of fat heirloom tomatoes, soon to become the culinary stars of countless salads, sauces and other dishes.

“I love it,” says Jasper, who lives a mile away from the garden, which sits behind the Lutheran church on Rodeo Road. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in nurturing plants and bringing them to fruition. And it’s a great source of nutritious food.”

On his side-by-side plots, Jasper also grows fava beans, string beans, arugula, onion, chili and garlic “as big as my fist,” he says.

The 34-plot Milagro Community Garden -- the oldest in Santa Fe -- is a verdant oasis amid the asphalt and big box stores of the city’s sprawling south side. With its picnic tables, flower beds and sculpture garden, the 13-year-old garden is a refuge from the frenetic buzz of the surrounding cityscape.

Milagro is just one of about a dozen community gardens in Santa Fe and its environs. Others include those at Frenchy’s Field, the Railyard Park, Sunny Slope Garden in the Casa Solana neighborhood, Maclovia Park garden and the El Dorado Community School garden. The annual fee ranges from $15 to $30.

The communal lands offer homeowners who don’t have room for a garden in their own backyard, or renters who are not allowed to plant a garden, a chance to indulge their green thumb in a shared space with similarly-minded neighbors.

“People who garden together get to know each other, and friendships develop,” Jasper says.

“I think that they get a sense of camaraderie, and also support, and they have the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes as well as their knowledge,” says Bianca Sopoci-Belknap, youth & community programs director for Earth Care, which supports the gardens through a mobile toolshed, manure deliveries and other resources.

Planting seeds or seedlings, carefully tending them and reaping the rewards also gives people who garden communally a greater connection to their food and the land, as well as to each other, Jasper adds.

“When you buy vegetables in the store, you don’t really have a sense of what’s in season,” he says. “When you grow your own, you have a strong sense of where it came from.”

 “I think that community gardens are a great opportunity to build all kinds of relationships that benefit people that go beyond growing food,” Sopoci-Belknap adds. “There have been some beautiful friendships that have grown out of them.”

The gardens sometimes spawn other community ventures as well.  Some of Eldorado’s community gardeners, for instance, have gone on to form the Eldorado Food Network.

The gardens also help realize the vision laid out in the City of Santa Fe’s sustainability plan, which calls for sustainable food systems for the community, Sopoci-Belknap adds.

“It builds opportunity for people to come together to address the food issues in our community -- food justice, the food gap, food health, and so on,” Sopoci-Belknap says.

That was certainly the case at the Eldorado garden. “I think people wanted to go more local, and  have more control over their food supply,” says Janet Bundrick, one of the first gardeners to break ground at the three-year-old garden.

In addition to Earth Care, Home Grown New Mexico also helps support the gardens, and the University of New Mexico Cooperative Extension Office has provided materials and expertise for the new greenhouse at Milagro Community Garden. School children have also lent a hand -- kids have their own plots at some of the gardens, including the Railyard Park and Eldorado, which is next to a school, and a new greenhouse at the Eldorado site will allow kids to grow and harvest food during the school year.

Growing produce in the high desert does present some challenges, however. Even Jasper, who has completed the esteemed Master Gardener program, has lost a few plants during his four years of gardening at Milagro. One lesson learned: cauliflower is no match for the northern New Mexico sun. “It wilts in the heat,” he says.

And community gardeners sometimes have to deal with some unwelcome visitors. Many of the gardens have battled gophers, mice and other rodents. Some gardens have addressed the issue with relocation, gopher fences and other no-harm methods, but at Milagro, Jasper finally resorted to lethal gopher traps after unsuccessfully trying to repel the rodents with castor oil and noisemakers.

“They had built up quite a reputation after feeding well here for years,” he says. “Some people stopped gardening because they lost everything to gophers.”

Community gardeners sometimes have had to contend with some unwelcome human visitors as well: the city’s theft and vandalism problem has, at times, spilled over into the  gardens. 

And coaxing life out of the sandy desert soil often requires a lot of toil and trouble. Jan Deligans said she and the Eldorado garden’s other pioneer soil tillers spent many sweaty days carving the garden out of a pinon-juniper woodland. “We had to pick-axe it, and we brought in a lot of fresh, raw manure,” she recalls, adding that the pH of the soil at the site is around 8.5, while most plants thrive in slightly more acidic soil. “We dumped three truckloads, and we had a good year.”

The recent drought has made it especially challenging to keep the gardens green. The soil moisture is the lowest it’s been in about a century, Deligans says.

At French’s Field, “it was so hot, it was quite a feat the first year” to get the 16-plot garden established, Sopoci-Belknap says.

Still, the tasty rewards are worth all the hard work -- even in the driest of times, community gardeners say.

“I always get hungry when I come here,” Bundrick says, looking out over the Eldorado garden’s 24 meticulously tended plots. “I start thinking, ‘I want to eat lots of vegetables now.’”

To learn more about Santa Fe’s community gardens, and how you can claim your own plot -- or bring a garden to your neighborhood -- click here,

Photographs by Kerry Sherck