Devoted volunteers tend a community garden at an unlikely south Chico location
Lining the west side of a lot, nestled between the fairgrounds and Costco, is a production line with 46 different varieties of tomatoes. Near the entrance, on the north side, are flowers and starter plants for sale. But this is no commercial entity; it’s the Chico Community Environmental Garden.
Between the various tomato varieties and the plants for sale are rows of garden plots leased to those who have paid annual dues of $50. People are free to grow whatever they like, as long as it’s legal and they don’t use any herbicides or pesticides.
A group of Chico State University re-entry students founded the nonprofit organization in the summer of 2003. About a year later they had acquired a user’s agreement from the California Water Services Co., which donated a parcel on Silver Dollar Way and gave them a discounted water rate. Seeds were then planted and the plots were built.
Today, about 20 plots are full, and there is room to build about 10 more.
The nursery is headed by Chico State alumna Cynthia Wright, a longtime gardener, who lists many benefits of the activity, including physical exercise and mental well-being, not to mention the fruits of the labor: healthful produce.
“I graduated with a degree in forensic anthropology and a minor in biology, so I had a lot of options available for work,” she said. Instead of finding a job within her main field of study, Wright continues to run a daycare she started while attending college, and she shares her passion for gardening with other volunteers at the community project.
The group donates vegetables to charitable organizations, including area homeless shelters, along with some schools. The nursery relies on volunteers and its one paid employee, co-founder Kevin Arnoldy, who spends eight to 12 hours a day maintaining and adding to the garden.
Over the years, the project has expanded to include a greenhouse, where the starter plants are meticulously cared for by volunteer Sherri Scott. The garden is also now home to a chicken coop and even playground equipment for children of gardeners and volunteers.
Even with the generosity of Cal Water, the garden still has a price tag—approximately $3,000 a month, Wright said. Expenditures include a portable-toilet rental, wages for Arnoldy (which Wright admits are “very, very low") and the real whopper: insurance.The community garden is open to the public Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sales of produce and plants average about $500 a month, so the garden relies on donations from a private source to meet expenses, Wright said. The garden has about three months of funding left, which is worrisome to those who’ve put the time and effort into making it grow.
“Once they’re finished with the Costco expansion, we’ll face their parking lot, which will help us sell our plants and produce, but that won’t be done for some time,” Wright said.
For now, the gardeners are counting on donations and fundraisers to bring in some much-needed resources. One of those money-making ventures will be a tomato tasting in which visitors can buy a plate and taste the different varieties of tomatoes that will be ripe by the Aug. 4 date set for the fundraiser, Wright said.
The community garden not only sells plants and produce, it offers services to the community, mostly in the form of education, Wright said. The CCEG has a volunteer garden educator, Jeremy Miller, a substitute teacher whose wife is the Associated Students sustainability coordinator at Chico State.
Miller is a Bay Area transplant who has volunteered at CCEG since shortly after his move to Chico at the end of September. As garden educator, he organizes activities for students who visit the garden on field trips.
For example, when fourth-graders from Four Winds School visited the garden in May, Miller set up stations—one that included teaching the charter school students the parts of the plant, another where they could pick greens to make their own salad.
“The point was to teach students how food grows and where it comes from,” Miller said. “There’s nothing you can’t teach kids in a garden.”
In recent weeks, Miller has organized a community produce-sharing event on Wednesday evenings called “Garden Swap.”
The idea behind the effort is simple: If you have an abundance of lemon cucumbers but you’re craving apricots or strawberries, go to the swap and trade for them.
The first swap, held a few weeks ago at The Cause, a house of green-minded folks at 727 W. Fourth Ave., drew a couple dozen people getting their trade on, Miller said. The next week at a different location, the turnout was small, but those who came could pick from tomatillos, lemon cucumbers, nectarines and apricots.
The next swap is scheduled for July 11 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at 1180 Palmetto Ave.—the back yard of the Satori Healing Center, which will be offering tours of its two-acre garden.
Don’t have a veggie garden or fruit trees? In an e-mail, Miller said that’s no problem: “Feel free to pick and bring edibles from publicly owned plants (for example, figs, plums and blackberries are all plentiful along the creeks), though please avoid picking from trees growing close to major roads.”