Growing food and community at the Commons

Residents of CHIP housing create thriving community garden on small, rocky plot of land

Murphy Commons resident Gram Patterson Feeley (sitting on bucket) and fellow gardeners pose for a shot in their new garden, located at the edge of their affordable-housing complex in east Chico.

Murphy Commons resident Gram Patterson Feeley (sitting on bucket) and fellow gardeners pose for a shot in their new garden, located at the edge of their affordable-housing complex in east Chico.

Photo By James Evaro

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“Whatever sprouts up is going to be ‘bomb,’” offered 28-year-old Jessica Jimenez, leaning in the dark over her newly planted row of vegetables.

Jimenez was one of about 20 residents gardening, watering, and talking excitedly about future harvests during a recent full-moon planting party in the new community garden at the edge of Murphy Commons, a cluster of affordable-living residences in east Chico operated by the Community Housing Improvement Project (CHIP).

By the light of the rising moon, Jimenez ripped open a packet of sweet bell-pepper seeds. While a neighbor held a flashlight aimed at Jimenez’s nicely hilled row, she scooped the black soil to the side, and shook most of the seeds into the soil.

“I’ve never gardened before, but I’m super excited about it,” Jimenez said. “I love it. I can’t wait to eat it all.”

Jimenez, like many of the people gardening in the 70-by-70-foot garden, has childhood memories of family members toiling in the soil, but she’s never had her own space to garden—until this past March, when CHIP signed a three-year lease with the city of Chico for the small plot of rocky, hard soil next to the community’s neatly landscaped rows of two- and three-story townhouses and apartments.

More than just plants are beginning to grow. Gram Patterson Feeley feels his life is changed. “I’ve met some really, really good neighbors that we’re using as resources not just in the garden,” offered the 35-year-old Feeley. “I found out that one of the girls that lived here was on my daughter’s soccer team a few years ago.

“We’ve been here for three years and not even really known anybody,” until the garden brought the neighbors together, he said.

The children of the Murphy Commons community are reaping their own benefits. Resident Nikky Taylor pointed to the stream of water coming from her hose toward one strip of her plot, where her young children, ages 3 and 7, planted marigolds. “I’ve never seen my kids go to sleep before 8 o’clock, until they’re out here, covered head to toe in dirt,” said Taylor.

Feeley sees similar transformations in his own family.

“All last summer, [we] sat inside the house, just trying to stay cool, and beat the heat, not really letting the kids go outside and play because I don’t really want to stand out there and watch,” he said. But now, with a place for his children and his new friends to share, he sees changes in his and his children’s daily lives.

“It totally changes you when you get out here,” Feeley said, as his young daughters, ages 8 and 14, romped around the dark garden playing with a toad they found just outside the garden gate, and made plans on how to pickle future cucumbers.

Despite rocky soil and rough spring weather, residents persevered. Now they are harvesting their own food.

Photo By James Evaro

The idea of the community garden took shape in the summer of 2010, when Washington Quezada, CHIP’s residential-services specialist, began working with the GRUB Cooperative’s community-gardens program, after 16 families living in Murphy Commons expressed interest in the project. After several failed attempts at locating the garden within the existing property lines of the complex, the city gave the go-ahead for CHIP to lease a small portion of an abutting 10-acre property owned by the city—and then, as Feeley said, “It started snowballing really, really quick.”

Residents began attending meetings, claiming plots in the garden, and starting the difficult work of breaking ground and sifting the rocky soil, in between the spring rainstorms. Flo Hamilton, GRUB’s garden coordinator, brought donated tools, hose bibs and more, and then stepped back to watch residents shape their own garden.

“They were out there for days and days with screens [to remove rocks],” Hamilton said. “Their passion is what is important. Because, I mean, what a difficult piece of ground!”

Residents strove with enthusiasm, despite heavy spring rains and unyielding soil, with help from members of the Chico community. Butte County Public Health program coordinator Raúl Raygoza joined the effort to help residents learn to facilitate their well-attended, “wild” planning meetings, said Hamilton. Residents drafted and delivered requests for donations, which brought in a dump-truck load of compost from local garden supplier Ag Mart, as well as a donation from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of $200, which the residents will determine how to spend communally.

In April, Chico State professor Mark Stemen recruited students to help erect a fence, along with residents, and volunteers from the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), GRUB and CHIP. Stemen, inspired by the new garden on city land, soon drew up a plan—still in the conceptual stage—for possible future development of the remaining acreage, should the city decide to lease more land.

Stemen would like to start with 2 acres and work up to the total 10, incorporating the garden into a place that can “connect field to fork,” including additional “gardens, a cooking station, and a seating area,” he said recently, for shared use by the larger community, schools, and senior citizens.

According to Feeley, about half of the housing community’s residents have participated in the garden in some form, from just attending a meeting or visiting the gardens, to volunteering to represent the garden participants.

Now, residents are eating their own homegrown lettuce, eggplant and strawberries, and have their eyes on the upcoming summer harvest. And the Murphy Commons community continues to expand the garden’s uses. Residents are spearheading a green kitchen-waste collection to feed their own community compost pile.

Quezada has found the garden to be the most successful project he’s ever worked with for CHIP, saying, “This is the first time that I’ve seen so much passion for something.” Out of seven CHIP projects in Chico, three now have gardens—the other two are La Vista Verde apartment complex off of East Eighth Street, and Lucian Manor Senior Apartments on Parmac Road.

As a result of such a success in such a short time frame, CHIP is moving toward incorporating community gardens in future development plans, Quezada said.

Why is the Murphy Commons community garden so successful?

“Mostly I think it’s because they are creating, they are doing it,” said Quezada. Compared to the classes or workshops that CHIP typically offers, the garden “belongs to them,” he noted.

“The idea of CHIP is to somehow try to help the development of the community,” Quezada stressed. “It’s not going to be just ground and vegetables.”