Grassroots Community Garden

By Beacon Staff

If you build it, they will come.

OK, I admit it, I was wrong. I went to the barn where I keep my horse and I saw a plywood sign on the road spray painted “Free garden space”. I asked the farm owner, “What is up with the sign?” He said, “Look!” He proudly showed me that he had enclosed a section of his hay ground with deer fence and tilled it smooth. “It’s a new community garden.”

Considering that I was the county extension agent and had organized many of these gardens around the area, I thought he was being naïve. It takes a village to raise a community garden; committees formed, goals established, raised beds built. His farm was out in West Valley where there was no transportation and his neighbors all had acreage. Why would anyone out here need garden space and who would travel all the way out to this spot from town to use it? All that effort, gone to waste.

A few days later I saw activity inside the fence. Strings were being tied, rows created, seeds sprinkled. What? Who? Soon the garden was springing up with flowers and leaves and shoots. Neighbors further up the road were on rocky ground and in shaded areas. The deer were a constant threat and plantings were always under assault. It became obvious the location was perfect. People would stop by the garden on their way home from work and tend to their young vegetables. I was amazed.

After the first season, there were so many friends that wanted to join the garden that the farmer expanded the fence. Irrigation was improved from a single hose to an automated system. I did have my nose slightly out of joint when I realized that the project for having the riding arena enlarged was on hold so that the garden size could be increased. More and more gardeners arrived daily. A shed was constructed for tools. One gardener installed a small plastic house to start her tomatoes. A few of my master gardeners showed up and started planting. It was fabulous.

Centennial Farm is the location. Les Keller is the farmer. He is shy about talking about his success but when asked about the garden, he gushes about how much he enjoys it. “I meet all the nicest people who live nearby and I am constantly receiving fresh vegetables. I wish more farmers would consider taking a small piece of ground and provide it to others for gardening. The fence and the water are a small price to pay for the satisfaction of seeing nine families from my area growing their own healthy food. I am not sure how I would have met so many neighbors if I hadn’t done this.”

As I ride my horse on the farm, I wave to the gardeners who ask where my plot is. I say, “I have a horse.” This is my choice. The sunflowers hang over the fence and rattle in the breeze. The gardeners exchange ideas and advice under the brightly colored umbrella installed over a spool. Les refuses to acknowledge that this garden was an act of generosity, but his neighbors disagree. He has offered to help any other farmers interested in creating a community garden for their neighbors. Build it and they will come.

For more information contact Pat McGlynn, MSU Flathead County Extension Agent at pmcglynn@montana.edu or call 406-758-5554.

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