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.
City officials adamantly deny they harbor any anti-organics bias and say they are committed to moving the entire city closer to organic methods of land management. Mainly, they say, the city needs more time to come up with any kind of agenda at all for community gardens.
But longtime local garden advocates insist City Hall has never given them anything but the back of the hand, beginning years before the recent spike in interest. If you take into account local land-use and zoning ordinances, departmental policies and the bureaucratic culture of City Hall, garden advocates say Dallas has never been vegetable-friendly.
Worthington says City Hall was "lovely" at first, listening with apparent enthusiasm to her idea for a community garden on vacant city property along tony Tokalon Drive in East Dallas. Officials took her calls and offered help. They answered her e-mails. They even sent papers for her signature. All indications were good.
She had more than 60 eager gardeners signed up. Garrett, the organics guru, had agreed to be an unpaid consultant. A landscape architect had volunteered her services, and a chic landscape installation firm had volunteered to set it all up for free. On top of that, an anonymous angel had offered to donate serious cash.
Then in February, events took a brusque and heartbreaking turn. "All of a sudden," she says, "it's like when the guy doesn't like you anymore, and he quits calling."
She eventually got a short e-mail from someone in the park department, she says, something like, "'I am sorry to inform you the park department has decided we will not be doing any community gardens.' They suggested I call the people who mow the easements around the highways and maybe they will have a little land for us."
Worthington still has trouble getting her mind around the easements idea. "Out on the highways?" But she knows a kiss-off when she sees one. "There is somebody, somewhere that has a bee in his or her bonnet that said no. Because, I mean, when communication was cut off, man, it was cut off.
"All the people I dealt with were lovely and excited about having this project, so I don't know who it is or where it's coming from."
Paul Dyer is the longtime director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. Not an unreasonable man, Dyer and his staff agree that February probably was a time of poor communication between his department and the forces of community gardening.
The city had just learned that it would not be getting $300,000 in federal stimulus money for which it had applied as a grant to support an ambitious city-sponsored community gardening program. Given that disappointment and a very bad budget cycle at City Hall, Dyer says he directed staff to hold off on new commitments.
He wanted time not only to devise broad citywide policies regarding community gardening but also to figure out where the budget was going to come from to support those policies.
"If we're going to do this on a wholesale basis around the city, then we need to have someone managing it," he says.
Dyer has a certain jaundiced eye for these things: "If you look at these gardens across the country," he says, "there are great examples, and there are horrible examples."
If a garden falls into neglect and if the surrounding neighborhood raises Cain, Dyer doesn't want to be the city official to send out the bulldozers.
Even longtime advocates of community gardens concede that community gardens have a way of coming and going. But they blame many of these failures on City Hall in general and Dyer in particular.
Don Lambert, founder of the private nonprofit group, Gardeners in Community Development, says he saw many community gardens wither and die when he tried to promote community gardening as a city employee 20 years ago.
"An awful lot of the gardens that we started when I worked there didn't survive, because we went through a really difficult time in which the city was actively doing everything it could to prevent community gardens from happening.
"We would run into groups in neighborhoods that had approached the city. They usually had a vacant piece of land that somebody was going to let them use. They would ask the city, and the city would say, 'Absolutely not, you can't do it. It's illegal.'"
The Observer asked Dallas City attorney Tom Perkins whether community gardens were illegal in Dallas. Perkins took a week to research the question, then called to say that there is "no definition for community gardens in the Dallas building code."
Does it mean you can't have one? Perkins referred all further questions to Theresa O'Donnell, director of the city's Department of Development Services, which used to be called the Planning Department.
O'Donnell says, "We like community gardens. We think they are wonderful things. We want to encourage community gardens as best we can. I think the problem is a hole in the development code. The problem is there is not a specific definition for community gardens right now."
She said they're working on it. But until they work it out, community gardens occupy a kind of legal no-man's land. They're not "against the law" like robbing a beer store is against the law. But they're not "legal," like a house or a business.
Given the general ambivalence of the city's posture, perhaps Dyer must be forgiven for not wanting to step into the big middle of things, especially when good gardens go bad.
"I don't want to be the bad guy," he says. "What do I do? Do I have to go in there and say, 'You need to get off?'"
Dyer's concern is not entirely without basis. It just happens to be a point of view that sets teeth seriously on edge among community garden people.
First of all, many would-be community gardeners view public land as belonging more to them, the public, than it does to city staff. They also view their own willingness to turn moribund land into food-producing gardens and neighborhood social centers at their own expense as a favor they are willing to do for the city, not as a drain on city services.
Kim Haley's proposed garden is on two acres of city land off Fisher Road in East Dallas that hasn't been used in 70 years. The property, rimmed by old trees on two sides and a disused railroad right-of-way on a third, is a lush hideaway where bird songs are louder than the muffled sounds of faraway traffic.
If approved, the garden would combine wood-framed raised beds with an outdoor classroom under a canopy of treetops. Like most community gardens, it would include special beds devoted to raising fresh produce for food pantries and other feeding programs.
Her proposal went the same route as Worthington's on Tokalon—lots of encouragement from mid-level city staff, lots of organizing success and enthusiasm in her neighborhood, and then last February, BLAM! Cold shoulders and canceled appointments downtown.
Haley says her would-be gardeners are not without some political sophistication. "We know a number of people behind the scenes, councilmen and campaign managers, lots of different people."
But even her connections couldn't figure it out. Even Haley's assurance that she would sign a contract which provided that the garden, if neglected, would revert back to the city, was not enough. "Plowing up a garden is not like demolishing a building," she says. "It's a couple hundred bucks to reclaim it."
Mainly, Haley is frustrated because she thought the city might even be grateful for the work and money her neighborhood was willing to provide to improve vacant city property.
"We're not asking the city for anything," she says. "We've got the design. The property has been sitting unused for 70 years. I think the garden is just a gift."
Like Worthington's group, Haley and her volunteers were told that the city's ability to deal with community gardens was dependent on the city landing $300,000 in federal stimulus funds. The pursuit of stimulus money under the rubric of community gardens fell to what might seem an unlikely city department, the little-known Office of Environmental Quality, a small agency normally tasked with monitoring federal air quality standards.
Dallas, already a non-attainment area for ozone levels under the standards of the 1990 Clean Air Act, is always looking for ways to improve its environmental scorecard. Eric Griffin, interim director of the OEQ, says he hoped winning the stimulus money would have allowed the city to score points with federal regulators by developing its own community gardens.
Griffin's gardens, unlike the volunteer operations proposed by Worthington and Haley, would have been owned and run by the city but paid for with federal grant money from programs aimed at improving air quality.
"The 'energy efficiency conservation block grants' have a lot of different categories of funding," Griffin says, "and we were trying to hit a bunch. We were going to reduce air emissions [by gardening]. We were going to use the gardens as a site to do energy awareness seminars."
The city, under Griffin's scheme, would instantly have become the single biggest player in the local community gardens game. His thought was, "Why don't we, the city, try to start a good number of gardens at once, launch those, and learn together with the communities that want to do this? That's why we submitted a request for $300,000 to the Department of Energy."
Griffin's plan was for 10 city-run gardens to be launched over two years. "We really felt like we had a good argument."
The DOE thought otherwise. According to Griffin, the DOE's authorizing legislation allowed it to give money to support existing gardens but not for the establishment of new ones.
"The DOE said, 'We really loved your proposal. It's just that our legal counsel won't let us get it through.' So, phht. Right out the window."
The only part communicated to the would-be community gardeners was the phht.
After the city's grant request was denied, Kim Haley says a mid-level city staffer with whom she had been dealing called her and said, "'Hold off, we've got a problem.'" Because there were no stimulus funds, Haley was told, community gardens were no longer a priority.
It was a deeply unsatisfying explanation for Haley, because "our group didn't want one cent of stimulus funds."
Nor did they ever want a garden run by City Hall. In fact, they thought the best indication of their garden's chance for success was their own willingness to pay for it and run it themselves.
"We've got people willing to pony up all of this money in an economy like this. And I think people who are willing to put that much skin in the game are not going to put up the money and then just walk away."
Haley, like Worthington, doubts City Hall bears any true animus toward community gardens. "I have a feeling that it's a big, unwieldy machine," she says. "And this really hasn't been done before."
But that's actually not true. Community gardens in Dallas have been around for a quarter-century. And Don Lambert, the person who has had more to do with them over that period than anyone else, thinks Haley is being way too generous with Dallas City Hall.
"Paul Dyer has been an obstacle to community gardeners for 20 years," Lambert says.
Lambert is the acknowledged dean of the community garden movement in Dallas. A University of California-Berkeley anthropologist, he was a principle architect of the revered "Asian Garden"—or East Dallas Community Garden, as it is officially known—founded in 1987 for refugee families on Fitzhugh in East Dallas (See "The Garden of Life," Dallas Observer, December 3, 1998).
Lambert has been a mentor to many of the region's 22 established community gardens. He is the person most often cited by other community gardeners in the region as the expert on how to make them happen.
He and other veterans of the local community gardens believe there is antipathy toward their movement in City Hall generally and in Dyer's Park and Recreation Department specifically, because of the gardens' historical post-'60s association with grassroots community organizing, which City Hall, they say, has always viewed as trouble.
"We think that's a side of it," Lambert says. He believes a community garden can be "a formidable force," one that can bring citizens together and organize them, possibly for political ends.
In the early 1990s, Lambert headed a city-run community gardens program at the Civic Garden Center (now the Texas Discovery Gardens), operated under the auspices of the Park and Recreation Department of which Dyer was then, as now, director. He says that the department had grown alarmed after learning from a newspaper article that Lambert was seeking to establish a regional alliance of community gardens.
For some reason—Lambert is unsure exactly why—the notion of a regional confederacy of community gardeners put the fear of God in somebody. Perhaps someone saw visions of hoe-wielding hippies marching on City Hall.
"The director of the Garden Center delivered a letter to me two or three days later from the Park Department, and I was actually forbidden to create any kind of a garden coalition.
"As I sort of escalated and showed my indignation, eventually I was forbidden to talk to any members of the Park Board."
Lambert says his immediate superior told him, "I was putting the Garden Center into an untenable position. I eventually got fired."
After his departure from the city, Lambert founded Gardeners in Community Development, devoted to helping launch privately owned and operated community gardens. He says he has seen the city's antipathy for community gardens manifest itself as an ever-higher Berlin Wall of red tape.
Lambert describes going to the city's plan department repeatedly during the last 20 years to ask why community gardeners were having so much trouble getting simple permits from the city for things like water meters and electrical connections.
Lambert says one city planner told him, "'Well, describe a community garden.' I said, 'It usually starts on a vacant lot, and you have to get a water meter established.' He says, 'Oh, well, you can't establish a water meter on a vacant lot. You have to have a house or a residence.'"
On another visit to City Hall, Lambert says, "The zoning guy went through the whole zoning book, page by page, zoning category by zoning category." After examining the entire book and finding no mention of community gardens, the official told Lambert community gardens were an "illegal use."
"I said, 'No, we just want a water meter like we already have at other community gardens.' He said, 'What are those addresses?' He looks them up and says, 'Well, this should never have happened.'"
His version of events could all be chalked up to Lambert's own skeptical view of City Hall, except that it comports closely with what city officials themselves say about community gardens and red tape.
OEQ director Griffin says that the original idea for city-owned gardens came about because his predecessor had figured out that city zoning codes made it very difficult to set up gardens on private land.
Even city officials couldn't get the city to do it.
"We immediately ran into barriers of land-use and zoning issues," Griffin says. "The city has a land-use of 'agricultural production' [farming], but it's only for plots of 3 acres or more."
And even that designation, he says, is of limited use, because few community gardens could assemble that much land, and that land-use category is only available in limited parts of the city.
Griffin says city planners feared that by sanctioning community gardens on land not zoned for gardening, the city would be legally changing the underlying "land use"—a technical consideration that can create legal holes in the fabric of citywide zoning requirements.
It's a complicated concept. But it means no.
No land in Dallas is zoned for gardening, bringing it all back to Lambert's story of city officials calling community gardens an "illegal use."
Griffin says that the city's answer to the illegal-use issue was to set up community gardens on city property because, "We, as the city, can do what we want to do on our own properties."
But now Dyer wants comprehensive policies in place and budgets authorized before new gardens can be created on city-owned property.
So: The zoning problem excludes vacant property not owned by the city. The Dyer problem excludes vacant property owned by the city. And that would leave what kind of vacant property?
No kind. And that's the secret, say community gardeners who have successfully found a way around City Hall. Don't even try it on vacant land owned by the city or by somebody else. Try it on land that already has an existing structure attached to it.
Despite all that, one of the city's most successful new gardens is on city-owned land. Tucked behind a former armory on a sloping lot that can't be seen from any nearby window, the Lake Highlands Community Garden on Goforth Road north of White Rock Lake is a beehive—literally and figuratively—of upscale, down-in-the-dirt activity. On any given afternoon in weather fair or foul, small children in private school uniforms and adults still in their office clothes prowl the carefully arranged garden, stooping over wood-framed raised beds to pluck weeds, sow and harvest food.
The garden has tripled in size in two years and now contains almost 90 family and individual garden plots, as well as a donation garden for the city's food pantries and a bee yard operated by ZIP Code Bees. The land was covered with asphalt before the would-be gardeners persuaded somebody to tear it up for free.
But A.L. Nickerson, a federal employee who is a founder of the Lake Highlands Garden, says this garden snuck in under the fence just before the big boom in community garden enthusiasm and before Paul Dyer decided to put on the brakes.
Because Lake Highlands was such a quick success, Nickerson is often asked for advice by other groups around the city interested in setting up their own gardens.
"I tell them to stay off city land," he says. And he tells them to stay off vacant private land too.
He is all too aware how difficult it would be for another group now to have the same good luck his group did finding city land behind the old armory. He also knows what people will face at City Hall if they try to set one up on vacant private land. So his answer is...?
"Go to church property."
In fact, that's where some of the city's most successful community gardens have been established. Putting a garden on church, synagogue or school property gets neatly around the pitfalls.
A community garden may not be a legally allowed "primary use" under Dallas zoning ordinances, but it's a fully legal "accessory use" in almost every zoning category, including places of worship and schools.
The Fairmont Hotel downtown has a 3,000-square-foot herb and vegetable garden on its roof. And who's going to come out in a car with a city logo on the side and tell Aunt Modita she can't grow 'maters? Especially if she's growing them at church?
Nickerson thinks community gardeners can solve most of their problems by avoiding city land altogether and finding private property with a pre-existing structure and a designated legal use. From that point on, he says, it's easy and even cheap.
Kent Binfield, president of the Lake Highlands Community Garden, says first-time gardeners who aren't sure how to do it will find plenty of resources to help them. "They can go to the Texas Discovery Gardens down at Fair Park," he says. "They have a great bunch of folks down there, and they have a lot of expertise." He recommends Howard Garrett's Web site, dirtdoctor.com. And visiting existing gardens is a good idea. "If some people really want to do this," Binfield says, "and they put together a community garden, they're going to find a lot of expertise just in the people who are already out there doing it."
All of the issues raised by city officials—who will pay for water, what will the management structure be?—can be solved by not dealing with the city, says Nickerson. Gardeners can avoid having their own water meter installed, for example, by agreeing to pay a fee to their host for water. They can mooch electricity or pay for it without having their own power pole installed.
The idea of a community garden associated with a church is not new. In fact it's modeled on an existing garden often touted by community gardeners as an example of best practices.
Becky Smith, director of Our Savior Community Garden at Our Savior Episcopal Church on Jim Miller Road in southeast Dallas near Mesquite, says one secret is that her garden isn't just for Episcopalians:
"Our gardeners are as diverse as the plants they grow," she says.
On a large open property next to the small one-story brick church, separate gardens are laid out together in a neatly landscaped grouping—one for families and individuals, another for groups of volunteers. A third garden, with more experimental plantings, includes a fledgling vineyard that is perhaps the garden's only nod toward its denominational origins.
"We can have wine," Smith says. "We are Episcopalians."
But the gardeners themselves are from all walks, all religious denominations or the lack thereof, she says. "Through gardening, through sharing the different food from different cultures, the respect and the understanding, all of us get excited about each other's differences instead of questioning our differences."
People come to garden at Our Savior for all kinds of reasons. "It's different for each individual," Smith says. "We have one lady who comes because she wants to be close to the soil. She grew up on a farm, and she misses that.
"We have a home-school group of 25 kids. Their interest is holistic. They learn good stewardship. They have lessons in art, science, history, all drawn from the garden. It's their outdoor classroom.
Some come to learn how to set up their own gardens, others to satisfy their private, spiritual and psychological needs, she adds. "Maybe it's stress, maybe it's—I hate to talk about those people—but [the gardening] helps them."
She talks about scout troops that come to the garden who see food growing for the first time. "They don't know where their food comes from. Most of them don't even eat vegetables unless it's on a McDonald's hamburger."
And good food isn't just for kids.
Howard Garrett is a Dallas-based national radio personality and author whose thinking on organic food production, once considered radical, is now being accepted by the mainstream ("The Dirt Doctor," Dallas Observer, July 17, 2008). Methods very similar to what Garrett has preached for decades were recently adopted by Harvard University for the management of its own grounds. Locally, Garrett has served as an unpaid consultant to several groups hoping to launch community gardens. He thinks affluent people need them just as much as people who can't afford good food.
"It's a convenient place for people to go and have a little plot of land where they can grow some food crops—space they don't necessarily have at home. An apartment person doesn't have space. A homeowner might not have enough sunshine."
Garrett believes people get more than food from community gardens. "They get the camaraderie of a community working together, beginning to learn from each other."
But like Becky Smith, Jan Worthington, Kim Hale and Don Lambert, Garrett thinks the food is the main thing. "Gardening gives you a way to know exactly where your food came from, and there is just kind of a sense of pride in planting something and growing it yourself."
Lambert says there is also adventure. "It's amazing how people start gardening, and they start eating things they never ate before."
If given the opportunity.
City attorney Tom Perkins suggested a bit vaguely that the city may attempt in the near future to amend its zoning laws to include community gardens.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
For his own part, even Paul Dyer says City Hall may one day come around to it. In an e-mail to the Observer, Dyer said, "We have been gathering data from community garden programs around the country.
"We will be preparing a briefing for the Park and Recreation Board in the next six weeks to develop a policy and potential sites around the city. Hopefully, this will create, if needed, the justification for a budget request in the budget process for the coming year. If well thought out, the community gardens partnerships and educational benefits could cover parks, vacant city parcels, school sites, community colleges, county property, undeveloped private property, etc."
That's not a firm yes. Nor is it a firm no. So what is it? It's Dallas City Hall. The best advice the experienced community gardeners can offer for dealing with City Hall?
Get around it.