The Og-Woi People’s Orchard and Garden is just starting to wake up to spring. Volunteers are pruning trees, building raised beds and prepping two memorial gardens for new flower blossoms.
But there are concerns about whether anything can be grown in the west-side garden this season, after the city ordered volunteers to cease operations and remove current garden infrastructure — ranging from orchard trees and memorial flower gardens to a mural of the late Pacific Islander activist Margarita Satini and a wooden community bulletin board.
A March 21 letter from the city gives garden volunteers until May 1 to comply with the order and directs them to apply for the city's Capital Improvement Program, which doesn't open applications until August.
The city cited concerns about soil quality, the unpermitted origin of the garden and a need for adequate infrastructure. Meanwhile, garden volunteers say they've taken steps to address the concerns and get city approval.
"It was just kind of an initial shock. You're like, 'What?' because it just came, there wasn't any lead up to it or anything," Dee Taylor said, adding that the city's timeline was unreasonable. "About a year ago, they (the city) just stopped communicating with us even though we continued emailing and telling them what we were doing."
City staff members said the city has a number of approved projects it has to prioritize, and Mayor Erin Mendenhall told volunteers in an April 6 email that "the city in no way wants to see the closure or destruction of this garden."
"Rather, the team at Parks and Public Lands is working diligently to create a pathway with you for the long-term health and sustainability of it," she said. "However, as someone who has fought against pollution that impacts communities for my entire career, I cannot allow food and medicine to be grown in soil contaminated with lead, arsenic and benzopyrene. Doing so would harm the very people we all want to serve. We have to repair this space before the garden can continue and fortunately, the city is absolutely prepared to address these needs with the community, but we need your participation to make it happen."
From guerilla beginnings to permitting attempts
The garden was previously a plot of unkempt weeds along the Jordan River Trail near Cottonwood Park, say volunteers. It started with a fruit tree planted on Earth Day 2020 as an act of civil disobedience and soon grew into a couple more fruit trees and, eventually, a community garden.
The unpermitted garden, which is located on city land, started as a type of guerilla gardening. The term describes gardening that takes place on land that gardeners do not have the legal rights to cultivate. Volunteers said the project has been an effort of love, with thousands of volunteer hours and donations keeping it afloat. It is currently sponsored by Blue Sky Institute, a grassroots organization founded by two of the garden's volunteers, Taylor and Tom King, in 2000.
Og-Woi has at times drawn criticism both because of its unsanctioned beginnings, and claims that it contributed to a growing homeless population along the river trail (a March 2022 report from the University of Utah found that homeless individuals lived along the river because abatements elsewhere in the city had driven them there and because the river offered a degree of both privacy and access to nearby daily amenities like food, clean water and convenience stores).
City staff members say a public survey about the garden showed "a great deal of support" among the community at large but lower levels of support among residents closest to the garden. A petition to preserve the garden has gained over 300 signatures, according to volunteers.
Despite the garden's unsanctioned beginnings, volunteers said they believed the garden was no longer a guerilla endeavor due to their efforts to negotiate an agreement with the city and address its concerns. City officials maintain they never made a decision to uphold the Og-Woi project.
Email correspondence shared with KSL.com showed that communication between Og-Woi volunteers and city staff stretches back to at least fall 2020, when the two sides began working on a draft agreement. That drafting process continued over the next two years, with soil testing and contamination being a major holdup.
The city follows guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency for soil in residential areas since the agency doesn't specify levels for gardening. Soil testing conducted in early 2022 showed that the garden had contamination that was above those levels. Luke Allen, community outreach manager for the city's Public Lands Department, said the city has approved community gardens with similar soil contamination and has used a capping method — in which gardeners cover the contaminated soil with landscaping material and woodchips — combined with raised garden beds.
"That's what we've done in other places and we know it works," Allen said. "We can't have community gardens on contaminated soil because that presents a danger. So if we're going to have community gardens, they need to be on clean soil. So we're definitely open to having a community garden in this space. We just want to make sure it's done the right way."
Og-Woi volunteers say the soil testing was not conducted in areas with edible plants, where volunteers had already amended the soil. Following the soil testing, volunteers took steps to address the contamination, including installing ground cover around fruit trees, building raised gardening beds and establishing an expert advisory board.
Reaching marginalized communities
Volunteers say their garden is a necessary part of the larger agricultural ecosystem, where other models can create barriers to gardening for some. The Og-Woi model is that anyone can enjoy the garden — whether that be a fresh tomato or a reflective moment near one of its memorials — without the expectation of having to donate to or volunteer time at the garden. Wasatch Community Gardens, another cog in that ecosystem, for example, lets individuals rent out garden plots.
"I think those other models are fantastic, but it doesn't work for everybody, " volunteer Mark Roia said. "The concept from the beginning was very much of a community-oriented product."
That community focus has included making sure the space is accessible for communities of color, who are both more likely to face food insecurity and live on the west side. The name Og-Woi means "river" in the Shoshone language. Organizers chose the name, with permission from former Northwestern Shoshone Chair Darren Parry, to acknowledge that the land the garden sits on was stolen from Indigenous people.
Maile Arvin, a garden volunteer and director of the University of Utah's Pacific Islands Studies Program, first interacted with the garden through an event her program hosted at the garden and planned to bring more students back this fall. She said the city's order that the mural of activist Margarita Satini be removed was particularly difficult to hear.
"It means a lot to the Pacific Islander community to see her represented here. It's really rare to see Pacific Islander faces represented in such a beautiful and prominent way," Arvin said. "We're really open to working with the city, but we do actually have to have a conversation and not just emails back and forth. We really hope that they see this garden as — you know, it's many things, but definitely it's really committed to diversity and kind of promoting racial justice in the city."
The garden has also been a space for Indigenous indviduals in urban areas to reconnect with the land and their ancestral teachings — including growing medicine and partnering with Indigenous gardens in Washington — according to two Indigenous-led nonprofits: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Utah and PANDOS (Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support). The two wrote a joint letter of support that urged the city to preserve the garden.
"Allowing the Volunteers of the Og-Woi project to continue to promote Indigenous sovereignty and the gift economy model is not only a matter of justice and respect for Indigenous peoples, but also a way to build a more sustainable and equitable future for all," the letter reads.
A path forward
A partnership with Wasatch Community Gardens, a nonprofit that manages two dozen community gardens, appears to be Og-Woi's saving grace.
Wasatch declined a 2022 request from the city asking that the nonprofit add the Og-Woi Garden to its existing contract. But Executive Director Georgina Griffith-Yates said a current request from the garden volunteers themselves is different.
"It felt a lot more like we have the opportunity to support an emerging and important community garden, where before it felt like we were taking that away," Griffith-Yates said. "We want to ensure that Wasatch Community Gardens isn't the only source for gardening in Salt Lake and we don't want to take over gardens. We're happy to provide support, but we really believe that it takes a diverse group of gardens and management of gardens to fulfill the needs and the demands of our communities and cities."
She pointed to the two gardens' different approaches with seedlings as an example of how different community gardening approaches benefit the community. (Og-Woi gives thousands of seedlings away for free, while Wasatch grows and sells seedlings as a fundraiser).
Wasatch is still drafting an agreement with Og-Woi, but Griffith-Yates said the nonprofit plans on offering assistance with soil health (including remediation if necessary), gathering community input and advising on best garden management practices. The two will also apply for the city's Capital Improvement Program together since Wasatch is planning on planting a food forest along another portion of the Jordan River Trail.
In the short term, however, the hope is that the partnership will allow Og-Woi to participate in this year's growing season.
Allen, with the city's Public Lands Department, said the original May 1 deadline was "meant to express urgency" because the city did not want the garden to expand or go through another growing season. However, he added that talks with volunteers and Wasatch Community Gardens have been promising and that the city is open to leaving the artwork and some vegetation, although nothing has been finalized.
"I think the city is willing to adjust some of the terms we put in that letter with Wasatch Community Gardens' involvement," Allen said. "We really trust them to oversee some more of the operations of things to make sure people stay safe and that the plan is managed in a way that addresses our concerns in the meantime while we go through this Capital Improvement Program process."
Although the process to authorize Og-Woi has been long and somewhat controversial, Griffith-Yates hopes that the experience will be a learning experience that benefits the community at large.
"I'm grateful for the city to be willing to take a pause and work through the issues," Griffith-Yates said. "I really am hoping that this can serve as a model for future gardens to be able to pop up in Salt Lake and not necessarily have to be tied to Wasatch Community Gardens. So while it is sticky and not ideal, I think that in the long run, we're going to see some great things come out of this process."