Planting a Community

a bird’s eye view of a local community garden & the people that make it grow

Lauren Fisher, photos by Lauren Fisher, Joel Pearish

Gardening in a porch pot can be satisfying and yield an acceptable harvest, but there’s nothing like sinking your hands into the earth itself, sowing seeds, and watching green things spring forth.  At the Forest Street Community Gardens in Eau Claire, members of the community can do just that regardless of whether they live on acres or in an apartment.

Individual plots about 20 feet wide and deep are available by application in the spring of each year starting at $35.  Or, individuals and families can purchase a membership in the shared garden, which produces vegetables for gardeners and outside organizations including The Community Table and the St. Francis Church food pantry.

These community gardens were established in 2009 by a group of gardeners, including city council member Andrew Werthmann, Dennis Elkenberry, and Tami Schraufnagel.  The original plots were in the Forest Street Greenspace across from Phoenix Park, and often referred to as the Phoenix Park gardens.  Over time, the gardens have developed relationships with Eau Claire City Council and Parks Division, Unitarian Universalists Congregation, North River Fronts Neighborhood, The Eau Claire Community Table, and Eau Claire County Extension, to offer more than 60 spaces to gardeners of all skill levels.

“It’s really sort of a friendship and talent developed,” Tami, who acts as the plot coordinator, said.  Although there are no official instructors, those who work the land at the garden learn from one another and develop skills together as they grow.  The shared garden uses a technique called “lasagna gardening,” which plot owner Linda Vognar introduced to the garden, in which layers of cardboard, tree litter, and spoiled produce are layered each year to build soil and beat back weeds.

Every year, the gardeners take the good with the bad from Mother Nature.  About five years ago, Tami said, a family of foxes set up camp among the vegetables, feasting on vermin that would otherwise feast on everyone’s hard-earned tomatoes.  Other years, woodchucks burrow beneath the plots and bring ruin to everyone’s efforts.

This year, 22 individuals rented 42 spaces at the Forest Street Community Gardens.  Tami speculates that members were worried about scheduled construction projects that would decrease access to the plots by car, and that some were concerned with discussion revolving around the installation of a veteran’s memorial.  Nonetheless, many were able to make the most of this community resource and grow in abundance.

Red: Keevin & Maria's spot. Yellow: Linda's spot.
Red: Keevin & Maria Peuse's spot. Yellow: Linda Vognar's spot.

LINDA VOGNAR

Linda Vognar was also an early addition to the gardens, beginning her plot in the second year. Her son had purchased a plot, but needed her help to take care of it as he travelled for work.  “I realized how much fun it is!” she said. Working the plot is a family affair now, as she travels frequently to visit grandchildren.  During her most recent trip, a wasp nest found a home among her beans; thousands of them buzzed from flower to flower all around her plot.  She planned to contact the plot coordinator to find out how to best remove them, as the garden is pesticide-free.  Linda introduced “lasagna gardening” to the gardens.  Every year in the fall, she layers leaves, cardboard, and compost onto her space to prevent weeds and build the soil.

Favorite tool: Hands
Favorite home-grown food: Broiled tomatoes with cheese
Extra Produce goes to: family, friends, compost
Favorite things about the garden:  Community, healthy soil, encouraging pollinators.

KEEVIN  +  MARIA PEUSE

Keevin and Maria Peuse have been gardening on Forest Street since 2009.  They also grow things at home, starting many of their plants from seed.  This year, they even tried winter starts, planting in the frigid months to allow seeds to sprout when they were ready.  This year, with the wet, late start to spring, Keevin was worried nothing would grow.  Maria says he worries every year.  They enjoy the local food movement, and collect their own heirloom seeds.  They work two plots to raise a fabulous tangle of productive stems and vines.

Favorite tool: A shovel, spade
Favorite home-grown food: Zucchini Bread,  “Down and Dirty chilli gets us through the winter.”
Best vegetable of 2019: Garlic, tomatoes
Extra produce goes to: preservation, friends and family, Just Local Food Cooperative

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