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How Salt Lake community gardens plan to keep feeding families during drought

Dusan Marginos waters his plot at Wasatch Community Gardens’ Grateful Tomato Garden in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 3, 2021.
Dusan Marginos waters his plot at Wasatch Community Gardens’ Grateful Tomato Garden in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 3, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Drought conditions in Utah are at dire levels this year. The majority of the state’s snowpack did not make it to downstream reservoirs, and soil temperature conditions skyrocketed through the month of May. An unprecedented fire season may be rolling in in the coming months, as the vegetation dries out and becomes perfect fuel.

But all 16 of Salt Lake City’s active community gardens are remaining open through the coming months, said sustainability director Sophia Nicholas, due to their innovative water usage and service to the community.

Between those community gardens and the Green Phoenix Farm, 422 households were able to receive supplemental fresh fruits and vegetables even in pandemic conditions in 2020, and projections are the same extending through 2021. Wasatch Community Gardens also sold over 10,000 plants during its yearly plant sale in 2020, with plant sellers describing the experience as “completely overwhelming with support.”

Katie Dwyer, marketing and communications director for Wasatch Community Gardens, said the gardener position for each of the plots fills up before every new year. Those looking to join their neighborhood food garden are encouraged to sign up for a garden’s waitlist as early as they can if they want to maintain a plot in 2022.

Even through a prediction of one of Utah’s driest summers in recent memory, Ed D’Alessandro, facilities manager for Wasatch Community Gardens, isn’t worried about the gardens wilting. In fact, when he digs in a tool to turn up an inch of soil, the flaky dirt gives way to a coffee-colored layer just beneath.

“You can buy drip irrigation tubes,” D’Alessandro said. “You can buy more hoses. But without that organic matter in the soil, you don’t have a good foundation.”

Drip irrigation — a method by which tubes are perforated along increments and slowly fed water throughout the day — is a water-wise way to feed each plot in the gardens. This, combined with effective mulch use to prevent evaporation and organic material in the soil that helps to retain moisture, allows the gardens to continue to flourish, even with a drought so severe that the governor called for divine intervention to combat it.

“We’re not going to ask people not to garden during a drought,” said Sophia Nicholas, sustainability director of Salt Lake City. “What’s being asked of people right now is to water your plants, water your trees, but let your grass go dormant, because it typically will go dormant anyway during hot summers.”

The gardens and farm, co-run by the Salt Lake City Sustainability Department and Wasatch Community Gardens, began with a single half-acre plot on the east side of Salt Lake City. The Grateful Tomato Garden celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. With a collection of 40 gardeners that sign up at the beginning of each year to maintain it, the lot produces fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers and a wide variety of herbs. It hosts a variety of youth programs, such as the Youth Gardening Program and the annual Tomato Sandwich Party.

Wasatch Community Gardens also coordinates a variety of community programs through the farm and gardens. One such program is Utah Yard Share, which allows those with open yard space to connect to people seeking a place to garden. This fosters a sense of camaraderie between community members while also providing an opportunity for apartment-dwellers to grow and eat organic, local food.

The Green Phoenix Farm, a 1.4-acre plot in downtown Salt Lake City operated by Wasatch Community Gardens, provides job training and opportunities for women experiencing homelessness. The program connects employers to women after 10 months of training on farm maintenance and career planning. A housing advocate works alongside participants as they navigate community housing, and women emerging from the program have worked in health care, food service, retail and agriculture.

“All the work they do goes back into the program,” said Dwyer. “The food goes to community partners, and the mentoring goes on to the next group of women.”

Wasatch Community Gardens also partners with community organizations like Artes de México en Utah. Along with growing culturally important crops within its gardens, the organization is hosting a series of workshops that follow indigenous traditional systems of growing corn, beans and squash; the corn stalk grows up and supports the vines of the bean plants, while the squash blossoms provide protection around the corn stalk and roots as all three grow.

The workshops are running in May, July and October, and will examine the relationship between food, land, community and empowerment.

The COVID-19 pandemic required Salt Lake City leaders to choose which facilities were essential and could remain open in a time of quarantine. With preventative work done by managers and gardeners, all the gardens stayed open.

This food was especially important during quarantine, when prices rose in supermarkets and crowded stores were untenable for elderly and disabled Utahns. Public health officials warned in the early days of the pandemic that the cash register at the grocery store was the most dangerous place to potentially come in contact with the coronavirus. With the continued existence of community gardens, fewer grocery trips had to be made, and more fresh fruit made it out to the public.

D’Alessandro has been working with Wasatch Community Gardens for six years, first as a community gardener, then as a temporary intern who wouldn’t leave. The best part of the community gardens for him is the spreading of culture from the soil into the community.

“I’m an Italian from the East Coast. I’m sharing peppers and recipes here that some people have never seen, and they’re bringing me back things that I’ve never seen. It’s really the magic of Salt Lake City,” he said.

Salt Lake City Green and Wasatch Community Gardens both plan to apply for a recent grant program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to expand the reach of the community food programs in the city. Salt Lake City Green needs to assess its alignment with longer-term plans, such as an urban agriculture assessment for the whole city. It is also looking at a plot of land that’s being evaluated for potential urban farming on the northwest side of the city, which could be funded by the grant program.

Those at Wasatch Community Gardens plan to apply for grants to expand community engagement and interest. Community gardens regularly fill up at the start of the year, so the only way for new engagement with the programs is to garner interest in communities without gardens. The west side of Salt Lake City, said Dwyer, currently lacks in gardens. The organization isn’t sure if that’s because of lack of interest or lack of resources.

“We have been wanting to serve more diverse communities for a while,” said Dwyer. “We want to work with them and see if they want that service. That’s where grant money would go: engagement.”