A little community spirit would supplant red tape

Sheila Toomey

Fact: There are not enough community garden plots in Anchorage to meet the current -- and increasing -- demand.

Fact: There is a big, new, community garden at the corner of Bragaw Street and the Glenn Highway that has been sitting unused for three years.

Question: What's up with that?

The short answer is someone opened the door and let a bunch of lawyers and bureaucrats in. The long answer is too tedious to waste time detailing.

Briefly, the state built the garden as part of the new Bragaw-Glenn interchange. They want to sign it over to the city, which seems reluctant to take it.

People involved say the negotiations are "complicated." A memorandum of agreement is needed, and a transfer of responsibility agreement. And ohh, the liability issues.

According to Master Gardener Dohnn Wood, who's been trying for years to get a community garden on the east side, city parks people tell him "their budget's being cut so much they can't afford it. ... the claim is they can't afford the maintenance," Wood said. "We don't understand it. What maintenance? They turn on the water."

City parks director Holly Spoth-Torres declined to comment on the negotiations, but said those involved are working to get the new garden running this summer.

The city is talking to the Anchorage Community Land Trust, a foundation-funded nonprofit, about running it, she said.

Kirk Rose of the Land Trust said that might happen but nothing is definite yet. The hang-up is between the city and the state, he said.

And so it goes. It's been three years and apparently all these bright people just can't figure out how to get it done.

Which is sad, given that Juneau, one-tenth our size, has a thriving community garden movement. Their secret seems to be committed gardeners and a minimum of city involvement.

In 1993, a group of Juneau residents asked the city if they could use an abandoned tract of city land -- an old gravel-covered sawmill site at Montana Creek -- for a community garden.

The city said fine, but the gardeners had to buy liability insurance and the city made it clear "they wouldn't have anything to do with running it," according to Alan Davis and Susanne Williams, two activist Juneau gardeners.

The local Cooperative Extension agent worked with them, Master Gardeners gave them $5,000 start-up money and the city drilled a well. They formed a little nonprofit to manage things, and today the site has 170, 10- by 20-feet garden plots.

Users pay $35 a year. Everyone has to donate five hours to maintenance. There's an organic section and a non-organic section. They eventually had to put up an electric fence to keep the porcupines out.

The Juneau Community Garden has a website. They have a plant sale in the spring, with vendors who share a percentage of their sales, and a Harvest Fair in the fall where produce grown at the garden and donated by the gardeners is sold.

There are 14 charity plots and last year the garden gave 1,000 pounds of potatoes and 100 pounds of carrots to the food bank.

The garden is self-supporting, said Sandy Williams, a past president of the Juneau Master Gardeners' Association.

In addition to this central garden, little neighborhood gardens are springing up around Juneau, said Davis. They're very informal, "little pockets of park land" the city wasn't maintaining.

One of them is just 6 feet wide, he said, with plots 4 by 5 feet -- "kitchen gardens for herbs and a few things you want to have nearby."

So, if they can make it work in Juneau, why can't we?

The secret of Juneau's success may be how much "community" there is in their community garden movement. Perhaps the key to Anchorage's difficulties is an absence of this grassroots spirit.

Special to the Daily News