Column | Community garden a growing concept

California is in a drought so severe that farmers are leaving fields unplanted because irrigation won’t be available.

Michael Snyder, in the Economic Collapse blog, addressed the impacts recently in “15 Reasons Why Your Food Bill Is Going to Start Soaring,” noting that: “California produces ... a fifth of cabbage, two-thirds of carrots, half of bell peppers, 89 percent of cauliflower, 94 percent of broccoli, and 95 percent of celery ... 90 percent of leaf lettuce ... 83 percent of Romaine lettuce and 83 percent of fresh spinach ... a third of total fresh tomatoes — and 95 percent of ones destined for cans and other processing purposes.”

To increase local food security, the Centre Region has many assets: good climate, soils and annual rainfall; lots of local farmers and backyard gardeners; and at least five community gardens, with about 270 plots, 100 to 500 square feet each.

We also have a lot of code-compliant commercial kitchens — potential sites to preserve summer harvests for winter consumption.

Since fall 2011, Spring Creek Homesteading Fund has partnered with the State College Friends Meeting to renovate and manage 12 public community garden plots at the Keller Street Community Garden, and it’s a replicable model.

The project began when Doris Malkmus invited us to submit a proposal to manage the weedy, overgrown garden for the 2012 growing season. The 50-by-55-foot garden area had been a congregational project, but members were finding it difficult to keep up with maintenance.

The proposal was approved in February 2012.

We hoped to open portions of the garden to the public for spring 2012 planting, but instead used the 2012 growing season to rest and improve the lower, public section, due to the high weed pressure, and build up to six raised beds in a new upper section for a few Friends members and the children in the nursery school.

Jackie Bonomo, of Healing Ground Permaculture, developed a layered mulching plan. Between April and July 2012, volunteers removed old stakes, tomato cages, bricks and other debris and spread cardboard, compost, alfalfa hay and switchgrass.

We dug post holes and built raised beds and gates.

The total project cost was about $1,270: 28 cubic yards of borough compost ($550); eight round bales of alfalfa hay ($150); four round bales of switchgrass ($40); lumber for raised beds, gate and corner posts ($120); Quikrete to set the posts ($20); 300 feet of 4-foot wire fence ($180); labor to dig and set posts and stretch the wire fence ($125); metal stakes ($25); and hardware including hinges, hooks, staples and screws ($55).

Cardboard was free; we scavenged it. Some lumber and metal posts were donated or scavenged. Starting from undisturbed lawn would cost less, with outlays for fencing materials and labor only.

During the winter of 2012-2013, we worked with Gary Fosmire at the Friends Meeting to draft maintenance policies; a gardeners land use agreement ($25 nonrefundable land use fee plus $25 refundable security deposit); and a land management contract for Spring Creek Homesteading to handle gardener signups, payments and maintenance supervision and for the Friends Meeting to provide the land and irrigation water, splitting the annual fees equally.

We also collected and repaired used gardening tools, built a tool box, marked out the 12 plots — each 5 by 20 feet — and signed up the first dozen gardeners, while Friends Meeting members designed and installed a simple irrigation system to bring water 100 feet from the spigot on the building to a spigot in the corner of the garden.

During the 2013 garden season, Elina Snyder offered a weed-management workshop, and Master Gardener Justin Wheeler installed a Snetsinger Butterfly Garden satellite pollinator garden. And a dozen gardeners raised tomatoes, beans, corn, squash, peppers, broccoli, kale, chard and other crops to feed themselves and their families.

Jason Lilley, a Penn State graduate student and president of the Penn State community garden, is working to expand community garden access by identifying available parcels. If you have land to share — residential, commercial, municipal, school or church land — contact Jason at lilleyjm@gmail.com.