Keeping Petaluma’s community gardens open when its parks are closed
The American poet May Sarton once said, “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help,” adding, “Gardening is an instrument of grace.”
At a time when most folks are struggling with having been “slowed down,” Sarton’s words seem remarkably apropos. As for the bit about gardens, well, the folks who’ve discovered the pleasures and practicality of community gardening have known gardens as an instrument of grace for some time now.
Petaluma happens to have four such community gardens, overseen by the Parks and Recreation Department, along with a number of other smaller public or private gardens that work along the same lines. Petaluma’s primary examples are the McNear Park Community Garden (near the Cavanagh Pool), Sunrise Community Garden (on N. McDowell near Capris Creek), La Tercera Community Garden (between the park and the school), and the Westridge Community Garden. Most of these are located within the perimeters of public parks. Since all Petaluma parks have been closed since late March, and with access to the gardens therefore encumbered, the city had to make some clear decisions early on.
“This is a tough area,” says Drew Halter, Deputy Director of Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department. “We’ve got these fantastic community gardens, some of which cannot be accessed without folks going through the parks, which remain closed. The position we’ve taken from the beginning is that, since our farmers markets are open – because under the state order they are designated as essential food sources – when we look at the intention of those orders, we see our community gardens as one and the same. These gardens represent an important local fresh food source, and that’s an essential service to the community.”
In short, the city’s community gardens are open, even if the parks they are located in remain closed. To make that happen, the city has developed a series of guidelines for locals to use the community gardens safely.
“People can still maintain their gardens to an essential level,” Halter says. “No gatherings or garden parties or group events are allowed. Don’t work in your garden if you are sick or have been exposed to COVID, or if you are exhibiting any flu-like symptoms. Go in and do what you need to do to maintain your plot, and then head back home.”
Tending your plot is easier, of course, at a garden like the one McNear Park, as it technically stands just outside the park boundaries. But with Sunrise Community Garden and Westridge Community Garden, which exist inside areas that are technically closed, the city has basically agreed to make a tiny exception to the rules.
“Those who have a garden plot there, we are allowing to enter the park for that purpose only,” Halter says. “These are not folks looking to hang out with friends because they have nothing to do. One person goes in, takes care of their plot, and leaves so that another person can come in and safely do what they need to do.”
Clear signage has been placed at the gardens that elaborate on these procedures.
“From what we’ve seen, I think all of this is working as intended,” he says, “and that people are using these gardens appropriately and safely. I’m just glad we are able to keep them open.”
Community gardens, as the name implies, are facilities shared by a neighborhood or community at large. Generally, participants join as members, and are given a small plot in which to grow and harvest their own vegetables and fruits, herbs and flowers. In addition to the gardens already mentioned, there are smaller ones throughout town, such as the gardens outside the Regional Library, in front of the City Hall, and one adjoining the McNear Park garden, alongside Cavanagh Community Center. Those gardens are maintained by the nonprofit Daily Acts. There is a small garden in the gated patio of the Senior Center at Lucchesi Park, managed by volunteers from the Petaluma Garden Club. Then there are the various small community gardens operated at PEP housing facilities, and by the numerous Home Owner Associations of various housing communities.
Of the gardens that fall under city guidance, Halter says the one that needs the most work at the moment is La Tercera Community Garden.
“That one has fallen to the wayside, a bit,” he admits. “We’ve lost our champions over there, so we are planning on reengaging that community, reimagining that plot, because I don’t think it’s being used to its potential right now.”
Asked to sum up future plans for Petaluma’s community gardens, halter says the Parks and Recreation Department is definitely looking to expand the program, with the help of the community at large, and in collaboration with nonprofit clubs and organizations.
“Petaluma has such strong agricultural roots, I think community gardens are just part of how people think about nature here,” he says. “I do see them expanding in the future. That being said, the city’s resources are probably not expanding any time soon, so we’ve got to continue to seek partnership with groups that can help us manage our gardens, and basically let the city stay out of it. Groups like Petaluma Bounty and Daily Acts and others.”
One thing that needs to happen, he allows, is a more unified approach to managing these different facilities.
“We’ve got these gardens, but they haven’t all been managed the same way,” he says. “Some have had people involved who then moved on, and maybe the record keeping wasn’t maintained that well. So, what we’re looking at is tightening things up, implementing some uniform procedures around maintaining the gardens, issuing water statements and all of that. Once we can get a good handle on a policy that helps manage all of the gardens, and not just each garden being treated differently, then the city will be in a better position to think about expanding the community gardens program.”