Community gardens provide apartment dwellers and those without back yards some experiences often missing from urban life. Sowing seeds and tending soil in a cooperative environment builds friendships and pride in the community.

The gardens, which become gathering places, also provide educational opportunities and the chance to share an edible bounty.

On Saturday, Sept. 8, about 50 peopled gathered at the Pickleweed Park Community Center in San Rafael for the Marin Community Garden Summit, organized by the Canal Alliance, the Trust for Public Land and Master Gardeners of the University of California Cooperative Extension. The day-long event featured speakers, demonstration tables and a panel discussion on the challenges and solutions to creating community gardens.

The event concluded with the groundbreaking of the new Canal Community Garden on the corner of Bellam Boulevard and Windward Way in San Rafael.

“We want to streamline the process for building community gardens in other neighborhoods,” event coordinator Lauren Klein said. “We’re very glad the Canal Community Garden is breaking ground today, but it took seven years to get here.”

Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey welcomed the crowd and spoke strongly in favor of strengthening and expanding the county’s network of community gardens. “We can continue on this journey towards even better community garden programs,” Kinsey said.

According to Marin Master Gardeners, there are currently an estimated 86 community gardens in Marin County, including neighborhood cooperatives, shared residential gardens in housing communities, institutional gardens built by schools or organizations and demonstration gardens such as the Mediterranean garden at Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael, which offers tours.

“There really is a rich and diverse way in which community gardening takes place, and we want to value all of that,” Kinsey said. The supervisor said he especially appreciated the individual schools that have decided to create gardens on their campuses and have integrated gardening into their curriculum.

“I think it’s an outstanding way to teach kids about so many aspects of life and nature,” Kinsey said.

The keynote speaker was certified Master Gardener Milli Macen-Moore, who became involved with community gardening after being diagnosed with diabetes in 2005.

To combat the disease, she immediately converted to a vegetarian diet. To save money, she began growing her own food. A former fast-food addict, the Los Angeles Master Gardener first started working at a 10,000-square-foot community garden in Highland Park and later developed curriculum for a nutrition and gardening program serving low-income children in Northeast Los Angeles.

“Before I was a Master Gardener, I started bringing community members into my own back yard and teaching them how to grow their own food and how to cook and preserve it,” Macen-Moore said. “Then I joined the Los Angeles Master Gardeners, because they had the same mission as I did. We’re there to serve the underserved in the community, especially in food deserts.”

Macen-Moore said her group helps residents with limited access to healthy foods become more self-reliant by growing crops at home.

The summit also marked the groundbreaking for the Canal Community Garden. With the sun setting, the crowd adjourned to the corner of Bellam Boulevard and Windward Way. The garden is being built on an undeveloped quarter-acre parcel adjacent to the Picante restaurant. The land is owned by the City of San Rafael, and the garden and will be managed in partnership with the Canal Alliance.

“This is something residents asked for,” said San Rafael City Councilmember Mark Levine. “There was a need for this. We had this land and we were able to make it available, but we needed partners.”

Levine recognized the Canal Alliance and the Trust for Public Land for bringing the garden project to fruition.

“We’re doing this because we used to have a community garden here, and it was very well-used, “ said project manger Phillip Vitale of the Trust for Public Land, which is overseeing the design and construction of the garden. The Canal District’s previous community garden, was displaced when the Pickleweed Park Community Center was expanded in 2005.

“We wanted to have that aspect back in our community,” Vitale said.

“I remember when we closed that garden back in 2005, there were a lot of unhappy people,” Canal Alliance Executive Director Tom Wilson said.

“They hadn’t gotten to turn that soil in years. It was a great loss for them.”

Wilson acknowledged area residents who organized a movement and got the new garden project off the ground. “They’re the people who will be out here sowing the seeds and growing their food,” Wilson said.

Using gold-painted spades, Levine, Vitale and Wilson turned the ceremonial first shovels of dirt in the dry, grassy lot. Construction is expected to last more than two months. “Weather permitting, we hope to open around mid-November,” Vitale said.

The garden will include 92 raised garden beds outlined by accessible pathways, a greenhouse, composting area and potting tables. The garden will also feature a trellised outdoor classroom and seating area.

For more information about the Canal Community Garden, visit tpl.org/canalgarden.

Contact Christopher Laddish at scope@marinscope.com.

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