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Communal garden faces resistance in W. St. Paul

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE
  • Star Tribune
  • May 1, 2012 - 12:18 PM

More than 400 community gardens dot the metro area, and springtime reservations for individual plots are snapped up fast.

But residents who live near proposed new gardens often are less impressed with the fresh produce, exercise and social interaction the gardens offer than with how the garden operations might affect their neighborhoods.

Two West St. Paul neighborhoods this spring stopped the city from locating a community garden in their neighborhood parks, citing concerns about traffic, unkempt plots, rats, loss of open play space in the park and even a worry from one resident that his garage might be pelted with tomatoes.

North Como Presbyterian Church in Roseville met with fierce neighborhood resistance to a garden it opened on church land on Larpenteur Avenue.

Is a backlash developing to community gardens?

Gardening Matters, a non-profit group that helps cities, churches and groups establish community gardens across the metro area, said there is a huge demand for the creation of community gardens and that resistance is not common.

Worries that arise typically melt away once residents see what the gardens produce and how they are cared for, said Nadja Berneche, program director for Gardening Matters.

"There are lot of misconceptions or myths out there about community gardens,'' Berneche said. "People who have concerns just don't understand what they are really all about.''

That turned out to be the case in Roseville, where the church garden is heading into its third growing season with no complaints from residents to the church or the city after the initial fight against the garden two years ago.

"One of the community members that raised strong questions stopped by and said we just got way too excited about this, there haven't been any issues and would you please forgive us,'' said Kim Spear, garden organizer for the church.

As a concession to neighbors, flowers were planted along the street in front of the garden, and all compost is collected for disposal off-site. Fears about mice and rats, raccoons and possums, deer and even black bear being attracted to the garden have not been realized, Spear said.

"After a whole lot of 'what if's' and 'this is going to be awful' -- lots of fear -- we are feeling quite comfortable,'' Spear said.

Delayed for a while

West St. Paul decided that resident opposition was too strong to locate a community garden this spring, but it is still looking for a suitable spot. City Council Member Darlene Lewis, who has championed the project on the council, said she is working with a church and the school district in hopes of permanently locating a community garden on school land.

Lewis said she was stunned and disappointed by the community resistance to the garden after a successful trial last summer with a communal garden on land the city bought for ball and soccer fields next to Harmon Park.

Garden volunteers worked hard at that location to get it off the ground, Lewis said. A volunteer from Dodge Nature Center tilled the soil. Others put up lightweight fencing to keep people from casually walking through the plots. Wood chips were put down to delineate 24 plots measuring 10-by-10-feet, and the city established 26 rules for how the individual plots would have to be maintained. When opened to the public, they were all spoken for within a week and a half, Lewis said.

"We had great success at that garden,'' Lewis said. One plot worked by volunteers yielded 130 pounds of produce for donation to the local food shelf. Traffic and parking was never an issue -- there were never more than two or three gardeners there as the same time, Lewis said.

But the garden had to move to make way for the ball fields.

Notices spark angst

The city first proposed Emerson Park as its new home. To test the idea, the park and recreation committee sent out notices to all residents surrounding the park.

"You would not believe the objections. I was dumbfounded,'' Lewis said. "One guy said they are going to throw tomatoes at my garage.''

The next proposed location was Orme Park, a small park with a hockey and skating rink that is shoehorned between the backyards of homes on Smith and Seminole avenues.

Again, the park commission sent notices to neighbors. And again, neighbors were largely opposed to the idea, on the grounds that it would bring traffic, attract rats, look unkempt and devalue their property.

Jason Booth, a resident who opposed the garden, said he and his neighbors are not opposed to community gardens per se but thought the city had not put sufficient thought or planning into finding a good location. "They sat around and said, 'Well, there's a park,' '' Booth said.

Orme Park is "completely surrounded by housing. It is the most residential park in the city,'' Booth said. "You have other parks in the city that are not completely surrounded by housing.''

Ultimately, the park and recreation committee voted to test the garden at Orme for a year. But Lewis said she could not urge the City Council to approve another temporary location because getting the garden off the ground takes so much work.

"I want a permanent place,'' Lewis said. "I have decided that I am not going to even try other parks. I am working with a church group here that has some property and I am going to work with the school district to see if we can put a community garden on school property.''

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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