By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It never occurred to Jan Worthington, an East Dallas yoga instructor, that her idea for a community garden could be controversial. "I simply wanted a fresh tomato," she remembers.
Now she knows.
Worthington and a group of eager would-be gardeners wanted to build long rows of raised garden beds—wooden boxes filled with plant-friendly soil—on a small portion of a grassy 10-acre piece of property owned by the city of Dallas near White Rock Lake.
The group planned to use an architect and a garden consultant to make sure its garden would fit in well with the woodsy residential neighborhood around it. Some of the raised beds would have produced low-growing, bushy crops like lima beans, peppers and eggplants. Others would have grown dense-green jungles of trellis-trained cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, loofah gourds and what-have-you. Winding between would have been walkways paved with wood chips.
But the whole idea ran into a brick wall at City Hall. After much sturm und drang and spinning of wheels, city officials finally told Worthington it couldn't be done.
In general, City Hall's position on community gardens amounts to saying it's just not ready for them. It wants the gardeners to wait until it can accomplish a lengthy process of study and budgeting.
Enthusiasm for community gardens is so great, not just here but nationally, that the city winds up looking like a traffic cop furiously tweeting on his whistle in the middle of eight lanes of freeway traffic. Not surprising, determined gardeners are finding their own way around.
Local garden experts say that folks in this city, like other places across the country, are bursting with energy and passion for homegrown veggies. It's a trend that crosses class and economic lines but with different motivations.
For Kim Haley, who tried to organize a community garden in an affluent East Dallas neighborhood, it's all about kids and healthy eating. She says, "I have noticed that if you give a kid a bell pepper to eat, they'll turn their nose up at it. But if you take it off the vine, they'll eat it.
"Just seeing the magic of that—that all of a sudden my kids are eating green beans by the handful, and parsley and tomatoes—and with the problems we have with obesity and inactivity—I really want my children to grow up knowing where food comes from and not thinking it comes in a box."
For Becky Smith, who runs a community garden in a more modest neighborhood in southeast Dallas, growing food by hand has a lot to do with need: "We have families who are here because they struggle to put food on the table."
Whatever the source of their enthusiasm, City Hall wishes community gardeners would put a lid on it, at least for now. Worthington, the yoga instructor, was seemingly welcomed with open arms at first by city staff, then suddenly spurned. She is one of a number of would-be community gardeners who say their efforts have been foiled by someone at City Hall, often described by them as an invisible foe.
In truth, their foe is not invisible—just not eager for publicity. We will name him here shortly. And the foe has his reasons.
Being a government, the city naturally assumes it must find a way to regulate community gardens and then come up with tax money to pay for the regulating. But the gardeners don't understand how growing beans can possibly require all that much regulation.
In its reluctance, Dallas may be a little backward compared with Boston or Chicago, but it's hardly the Lone Ranger, according to national community garden experts. Cities everywhere are having trouble keeping pace with the surge of interest in community gardens, and private garden advocacy groups say interest has become so great in just the last year that they barely have time to man their own phones.
The trend does not look like it will melt away soon. A January 2009 survey paid for by Monsanto and published by the National Garden Association found that 31 percent of all U.S. households—36 million in all—participated in some form of food gardening in 2008. The study revealed that 7 million more households will raise garden food in 2009—a jump of 19 percent, more than twice the rate of increase for the previous year.
An important topic of conversation at the national convention of the American Community Garden Association held in Columbus, Ohio, in August, was the degree to which public enthusiasm has dwarfed local resources all over the country. ACGA President Bobby Wilson told the Observer, "There is so much demand on local programs across the country that they cannot keep up with it."
Given the national picture, perhaps some slack should be cut for City Hall in Dallas if it can't keep up either. But City Hall has failed to explain the problem to community garden enthusiasts, leaving them to puzzle it out for themselves. And that has led to some understandable gardening paranoia.
Some people even speculate there's a secret anti-organic conspiracy afoot, funded by Big Chemicals. Kim Haley has pondered the possibility of an unspoken agenda harbored by someone in authority taking issue with her group's commitment to organic techniques or maybe even its association with Howard Garrett, the Dallas-based national organics guru who is persona non grata to the chemical industry and Texas A&M University.