Community garden gears up for fall harvest

Tucked away at Tempe’s Escalante Community Center is a 15,000 square-foot garden where everything from sweet potatoes to basil is growing and thriving.

The community garden, located near University Drive and Price Road, was built to provide more fresh produce in the food boxes handed out by local non-profit Tempe Community Action Agency to those of low-income.  Construction began in February 2010 and in a couple of weeks it will be time to collect the garden’s first fall harvest.

“I think we’re really going to have a tremendous harvest,” TCAA director of operations Stephan Sparks said.

The TCAA has been trying to provide healthier choices with their food boxes, Sparks said, but found it difficult with only the high salt, high saturated fat food items that usually get donated.

Collecting old produce from local grocery stores was another option to put more produce in the boxes, he said. Though, usually only 10 to 20 percent of the produce was useable.

“(It was) a lot of work, not a lot of output,” Sparks said. “It was hit or miss.”

Building a garden was the next idea, he said. It fit the TCAA’s idea of a sustainable and local resource allowing them to provide more fresh produce in each food box.

Garden coordinator Dave Tally is usually up bright and early to tend to the garden.

“Walking around every morning and seeing everything come to life is really cool,” he said.

Tally’s current project is to plant wildflowers and herbs in a unused portion of the garden.

Sweet potatoes and pumpkins have been planted in two beds with walls made out of straw bales. Since the beds are in an area of the garden that gets irrigated, the straw bales are quickly decomposing.

“They don’t have a very long lifespan,” Tally said. “We were just experimenting with them.”

Next to the pumpkins there are beds made out a material fabricated out of recycled plastic and woodchips that is handicap accessible. These beds allow someone in a wheelchair to reach across the entire bed wherever they are, Tally said.

Other beds are made out of redwood, and old tires have been used as beds for basil and okra plants.

Local Girl Scouts recently came to paint the tires, Tally said.

Each bed at the garden represents a different way someone could garden at home. Tally is able to tell how much it would cost to construct each type of bed. For the redwood beds, he said it would cost around $375 including soil.

While the site teaches the community about gardening, it also has become a classroom, Sparks said. The TCAA has partnered with Thew Elementary School, located just south of the community center, to have classes held at the garden.

“(The students are) learning where food comes from (and) doing a lot of science and math curriculum using this as a learning environment,” Sparks said.

On Saturday, Tempe resident Leah Abriani, 32, brought a group of local high school students to help Tally around the garden.

Abriani was a volunteer for the Teen Diversity Dialogues, a program for kids to discuss their community. The program recently ended and Abriani said it would be a shame to not see her fellow volunteers and participating students again.

“We decided we need to coordinate some get-togethers,” she said.

Tally gave the kids some gloves and had them help him haul river rock into the garden.


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