The NCO Gardens Project

Eleven years of growing community

by Karen Rifkin

With mud on their boots and dirt on their pants, the four women of the North Coast Opportunities Gardens Project staff had just returned from a morning spent digging holes and setting posts for the new fencing that will enclose their latest community garden on North Oak Street in Ukiah.

Although it is officially designated as a veteran’s community garden—free to all veterans—Sarah Marshall, coordinator for the Mendocino County Garden Project, makes clear that anyone interested may call her at 707-462-1958 to request a plot in the new garden.
Explaining the healing benefits of community gardens, she states that being engaged in gardening addresses the seven aspects of health—social, physical, spiritual, occupational, emotional, mental and environmental.

The newest garden, The North Oak Street Pocket Park, is located on North Oak Street between Cypress Avenue and Low Gap Road. The area will be developed in conjunction with the Ukiah Valley Trail Group, which will improve the trail running along Orr Creek adjacent to the garden. The Native Plant Society will establish new native plants beside the garden.

There will be 28 plots at the site varying in size from half-raised beds, 4 by 10 feet, accessible for any gardener including those in wheelchairs, to in-bed gardens, 10 by 12 feet, for all others.
A yearly fee of $20 to $40 includes free seeds, drip irrigation, water, compost provided by Cold Creek Compost, the use of tools, and a series of free educational workshops. Everyone is welcome to participate, and no one will be turned away.

The Gardens Project started in 2007 and today supports a network of 2,500 gardeners in Mendocino County. The program reaches every single corner of the community, including city council members, Rotary members, business leaders, and many low-income residents.
“We have gardens all over town,” says Sarah. “It helps people become more connected to their neighborhood and community.”

Ground was broken on Veteran’s Day for the new garden. The goal, with the strong support of the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs and Mendo Mill and Lumber, was to have it up and running by May. Then, in mid-January, the area was vandalized. Twelve posts that had been set in gravel in the ground were stolen. An email was sent out for an impromptu work party the very next day.
“I thought we would be there by ourselves, but three men showed up to help. There was an outpouring of community support; businesses and individuals rallied, providing monetary donations and materials. There was so much community support, we were able to keep building,” says Lucy Kramer, the newest AmeriCorps worker.

Ava Ryan, Gardens Project Manager for Lake and Mendocino Counties, talks about the social justice aspect of the project.

“Community gardens create opportunities for those who don’t have access to healthy food, empowering them to take back what has been taken from them. They’re about healing. Digging your hands in the dirt not only connects you with the land but also with your neighbors, helping to forge self- sufficiency, the overarching theme of community gardens,” she says.

Taylor Jamison, the AmeriCorps worker for Lake County, explains that food advocacy—teaching people about how to become involved in their local food system—brought her into the field. “Lack of access to food is a consequence of classism and racism; it disconnects people from their food sources. Community gardens are a great way to solve that, to provide access for those who are less empowered and for them to learn how to grow their own food,” she says.

The idea for the newest garden was initiated by veteran John Johns and developed in partnership with the City of Ukiah, the landowners. John had been looking for land to expand a smaller garden on Orchard Avenue that has been serving seven veterans. In July, after he did a great deal of organizing, the Gardens Project sponsored a pop-up party on the new site, providing food and music, and inviting neighbors to gauge their interest and gather input. With the high level of interest, a decision was made to proceed with the site.

The Gardens Project now boasts approximately 40 gardens in Mendocino County, with 13 of those in Ukiah and others in Willits, Hopland and Boonville. They have no accurate count; their goal is to help build and establish the gardens. Once they are up and running, they become community owned.

The Gardens Project just completed a new garden in Middletown, where every gardener had lost a home or been impacted by the recent fires, including the burned piece of property on which the garden had been built. “That garden became a healing space,” says Ava. “The people had been scattered, and the garden allowed them to come back as a community and rebuild and grow. Now there is new life in that space, green and vibrant. Being able to give that back to a community that has hurt so much has been very inspiring.”

Last year the Gardens Project, initially inspired by Miles Gordon, celebrated its 10th anniversary with a picnic in Vinewood Park next to their garden. It brought together community members from all walks of life—gardeners, business managers, major donors, city employees—sitting together and sharing a meal. “It was a wonderful moment, being able to gather so many community members who had been touched by our gardens in so many ways,” says Ava. “We hope to do it again next year, but we’ll do it as a pot luck where everyone can share the harvest from their gardens.”


Learn more about The Gardens Project at gardensproject.org.
Journalist Karen Rifkin, when not writing about people, events, and ideas that interest her, teaches part time, plays the ukulele and is making travel plans.
All photos courtesy of The Gardens Project except the park construction image, which was provided by Karen Rifkin.