With Portland real estate at a premium, people make all kinds of calculations about space. We’ve gone from studio apartments to micro apartments, go to war over public and private parking spaces, and enforce zoning to within an inch of our lives, or at least an inch of our property lines.
Sadie Holmes has a deeply rooted concern about space.
“I hope this year,” said the Northeast Portland resident with a farmer’s gleam in her eye, “to have room for my cucumbers.”
We’re raising the level of our diet, one urban furrow at a time.
Last weekend, on a field next to Trinity Lutheran Church on N.E. Killingsworth, cucumber plants competed for space with eggplants and tomatillos, shooting up out of their little black plastic holders like renters seeking a second bedroom. Aspiring gardeners squatted to peer at them closely, searching among the wobbly sprigs of spring to try to see the salads of summer.
For 19 years, Growing Gardens has been one of several groups attacking Portland’s food issues at ground level. Over that time, according to executive director David Greenberg, its volunteers have installed more than 1,000 gardens in yards of limited-income families. Amazingly – at least to anyone who’s watched a warmly encouraged tomato plan ungratefully turn brown and bleak in August – 80 percent of the gardens are still producing vegetables five years later.
“When you teach someone to grow food,” points out Greenberg, “they eat better, you reduce hunger, and people become more self-reliant.”
The gardens come with seed, fertilizer, experienced advice and starter plants, which is what’s happening on this mid-May Saturday at Trinity Lutheran. The plant starts have been lovingly grown by dirt-skilled volunteers, like Humane Society volunteers preparing puppies for adoption, and on this field next to the playground swings the baby plants are finding their families.
From noon to two the newest gardeners come to stock their dirt; from two to four it’s the two- and three-year veterans, who scrutinize the squash, tomato and hot pepper plants like seasoned horse show buyers prodding the livestock.
“It makes it so we can afford to have organic vegetables all year,” says Sadie Holmes. “My kids eat much more fresh food when they can just go out to the garden and get it.”
Maria Solano, who has moved from cultivating her own garden to advising new gardeners around the metropolitan area, is looking for some new varieties of peppers to liven up the salsa that she puts up in jars for the winter and gives out as Christmas presents.
The gardeners walk about with armfuls of plants, mentally laying out their yards. At the end of the rows of tiny boxes is an advice booth with volunteers from the Portland Gardening Club. Along with the soil that brought American settlers to Oregon in the first place, and a long (and lengthening) growing season, their presence reflects another advantage of running this kind of program here; just as Los Angeles is full of people eager to explain how to write a screenplay, and Minnesota replete with locals ready to guide you through ice fishing, and New York thick with people bursting to explain everything, Portland blooms with gardening experts.
The booth is crammed with pamphlets, a cigar box displaying dead bees to illustrate useful pollinators and a home-drawn comic book, “Bumble Tales,” chronicling a swarm’s garden adventures. Asked how the advising is going, Christine Farrington beams, “It’s been exhilarating.”
At the other end of the growing cycle, the rising gardeners’ crops are seeding something else.
“Most of our folks are not only growing for themselves, they give it away to their neighbors,” says Greenberg. “Growing food becomes a community activity.”
And not just in the hallowed Oregon tradition of dumping a bag of zucchinis on the next-door stoop and running away.
Too many Oregonians, like too many other Americans, have issues both of not having enough to eat and of what they do eat. Fresh vegetables and fruits are not the cheapest ways to fill stomachs, but lacking them can be very expensive down the line, as diets of fries and instant ramen clog arteries and diabetes wards.
So when Allison Rose, walking among the eggplant starts, reports that her kids like to go out back and pop cherry tomatoes from bush to their mouths, we’re harvesting more than vegetables.
“Growing your own fruits and vegetables,” says Emily Keeler, Growing Gardens’ gardening director, “you have a deeper relationship with your food.”
And a whole new vision of a healthy Oregon appetite.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/24/15.