On a recent cloudy afternoon, David Parrish yanked weeds from a patch of dirt where he’s been growing strawberries. He gardened barefoot, admiring an impressive harvest at a nearby plot run by a couple.
“They fertilize like crazy,” Parrish said. “They’ve got something brewed up — I don’t know what it is — and it just goes bananas. So yeah you learn a lot from other people, just by walking around even if you don’t ever see ’em.”
Parrish maintains two plots at a community garden in Midtown Anchorage — one of four such gardens run by the city’s Parks and Recreation department. He has managed to reserve plots the past five years, but that is exceptionally lucky.
Across the city demand for plots is roughly twice the amount that’s available, which has created long waitlists for would-be gardeners. Parrish said he would like to see more gardens closer to where he lives.
“It’s here and some places on the East side. There’s none on the south side. There’s none on the west side. So I think that would be the improvement is more options,” Parrish said.
But Parks and Rec is working to provide more gardening spaces.
At East 8th and Karluk near the Fairview neighborhood, a group of teenagers has been busy building 12 new raised beds. The work crew is part of Youth Employment in Parks (YEP), a program that hires Anchorage teens to complete park improvement projects.
Margaret Timmerman, the community garden coordinator for Anchorage Parks and Recreation, supervised the construction of new beds at Fairview Park. She said that instead of creating new gardens in other areas of Anchorage, she is focusing on expanding the number of plots at existing gardens.
“You know Field of Dreams, ‘We will build it and they will come’? You really have to make sure that’s going to happen,” Timmerman said.
Although the municipality owns over 11,000 acres of park land, it can be difficult to find areas that have the right combination you need for a successful community garden: decent growing conditions, with access to water and public transportation.
Two years ago, a professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage created a community garden survey to help the Parks and Rec department understand residents’ needs. The results showed that the greatest need exists in East Anchorage, where there’s less space for private gardens next to peoples’ homes.
But the east side of town is where most of the city’s community gardens are already located. According to Prof. Shannon Donovan, who ran the survey, there’s still a high demand from residents in the south and west parts of town, where many homes do have space for private gardens.
“The city kind of needs to decide if they want to do both — look at putting gardens in places where there aren’t as many versus putting in more gardens where there’s been a real need and interest expressed,” Donovan said.
Then there’s the issue of funding.
“Most of the people who rent garden plots — it’s about 25 dollars a year. Right, so it’s not covering the cost,” Donovan said.
Cook Inlet Housing Authority, Anchorage Community Land Trust and Catholic Social Services currently manage and maintain three of the city’s community gardens, which cuts costs for the municipality. Donovan said that these kinds of partnerships are essential for expanding the number of community gardens.
Soon a sizable dent will be made in the waitlist for community garden plots. Anchorage Parks and Recreation recently received a federal grant to help develop Muldoon Town Square Park in East Anchorage. Next year they plan to build a community garden with 50 plots in the new park.