How one Chico apartment complex is breaking ground for a green cause
When apartment living comes to mind, many people think of its limitations: no yard, (usually) no pets, limited space and—certainly—no garden.
But that is not the case at Walnut Grove Apartments, a modest facility located on Nord Avenue near West Sacramento Avenue. It’s a pretty typical complex, said Bethany Johnson, who has lived there for more than six years. Residents from its 82 units range from college students to seniors—some of whom stay for a year and others more than a decade—and until recently, aside from its pet-friendly atmosphere, not much else set the concrete-laden complex apart from its neighbors, she said.
That changed last month, however, when the complex’s unused, weedy tennis courts began the transformation into a project that, if successful, definitely will set it apart: a community garden.
“It will make people feel safer, and it will make people enjoy where they live—to know they’re a part of something,” Johnson predicted.
Johnson, who has a casual background in gardening, said she noticed more and more tenants cluttering their walkways and balconies with potted plants when she took over as manager last August. She had also heard tenants talking about the possibility of starting a garden. She liked the idea.
Soon after, she organized a community meeting with residents and felt there was enough interest to go forward with the project. However, she knew it would be a lot of work.
“But I had a vision,” Johnson said.
The tennis courts, located just yards from the complex’s back building, are jutted up against the noisy train tracks between West Sacramento and Eighth avenues. The overgrown, cracked courts have seen little action over the past few years aside from a half-court where residents sometimes play basketball. But the tree-free space soaks in plenty of sunlight throughout the day and is protected by a 12-foot chain-link fence, which can be locked once the garden is up and running.
Johnson also noted that the apartment complex was once home to a walnut orchard a “long, long time ago” (hence the complex’s name), so they knew the soil hidden underneath the layers of concrete would be fertile, she said.
With the help of volunteers, tenants and her father, a local contractor, Johnson has held two garden work days so far, the second of which intentionally fell on Earth Day (April 22). During those days, more than dozen people—most of whom belong to GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies), a local nonprofit that focuses on community-supported agriculture—cleared a 336-square-foot area of rocks and debris and sketched 10 rectangles on the ground before Johnson’s father carved them out with a rented concrete saw. All 10 of the rectangles—ranging from 4-by-4-feet to 4-by-12 feet—were spaced far enough apart for easy wheelchair access, and some of the boxes were built high above the ground to ensure that those with limited mobility aren’t excluded from the garden.
So far, five redwood boxes have been constructed inside the rectangular cutouts. The boxes are filled with soil, worm castings, “and all other kinds of good stuff,” Johnson said. The group even managed to plant seedlings donated from Feast of Friends in two of the plots after the two days of work, and on a recent sunny afternoon, the beginnings of tomatoes, lettuce and onions could be seen poking out from the soil.
In terms of the future, Johnson is teeming with ideas. She’d eventually like to see the garden yield enough fruits and vegetables so the complex can sell them to tenants or trade produce for time spent working in the garden, she said. And, of course, tenants will have the option not to be involved at all.
She’d also like to plant peach and apple trees and lemons, limes and mandarins outside the garden’s fence that tenants can pick off the vine at will. She even wants to plant edible landscaping outside the apartments in lieu of flowers so residents can pick herbs and cook with them.
However, just completing the garden is her main priority, Johnson said. Once she can gauge how well the concept catches on, she can consider other ideas such as composting and building a small greenhouse and tool shed, as well as creating a governmental body of tenants to regulate the garden in the future.
Johnson also noted that, despite the garden’s beginning stages, she has already seen a more tight-knit community sprouting up at Walnut Grove Apartments. She has learned a lot about her neighbors during the planning process and first two work days.
“I found out that tenants had expertise I didn’t know about, such as how to best build that wall,” Johnson said while pointing to the tomato planter, the tallest of the boxes.
“And that’s kind of the idea. You get to know your neighbors.”