SHERIDAN — “I would venture to guess that Sheridan has more community garden square-footage per capita than most any other comparable town in the U.S.,” said Gene Davis, who has helped organize several community gardens in Sheridan.
Davis is a member of Partners in Philanthropy, a small group of Sheridan volunteers who provided financial backing for the start of several community gardens in Sheridan beginning in 2009. Community gardens are communal locations, sometimes on privately owned land, sometimes on public land, where local residents can rent or share plots and raise produce.
“Our goal is to put the initial capital in to get it started, get some organization going and then turn it over,” Davis explained. “We don’t want to manage them, we just want to build them. I think Scott Nickerson (PIP member) said it best, we are trying to create a community of gardeners. We want to create the environment where people can create a community of people who care about gardening.”
The gardens began in 2009 with a community garden at Sheridan College. In 2010, the group expanded to Sheridan Memorial Hospital and Sagebrush Community Garden. Emerson Gardens, located on Emerson Street began in 2011.
Work on the gardens was overseen by Bob Legerski, who was hired by PIP to serve as the project manager. He dealt with the logistics such as plowing, tilling, fencing and setting up the plots. Davis, referred to as “Aqua Man,” handled the irrigation challenges.
“I would say there are a lot of different dimensions to it,” Legerski said about the benefits of participating in a community garden. “There’s the idea of being in the big community garden and not being alone and having multilevel expertise going on.
“There are some people that are very knowledgeable and some that have never gardened before,” he continued. “You find the knowledgeable people are willing to help the folks who don’t know as much. Friendships have been formed between people who wouldn’t normally interact. It has been a lot of fun.”
In addition to growing fresh produce for the table or flowers for a vase, community gardens allows gardeners to swap tips and advice, share recipes and generally socialize.
“It is just a great place to socialize with some of the neighbors,” said Ryan Buchanan, who manages the Sagebrush Community Garden. “There is a real community feeling about it.”
Sagebrush Community Garden is located on land owned by the city of Sheridan and is currently at 80,000 feet, or approximately two acres. However, the parcel of land is 13 acres in size, allowing for significant expansion of the garden in the future if demand increases. In addition, Legerski and Buchanan said there are plans this fall to add a small greenhouse to store tools and allow gardeners to start seeds indoors early next year.
The concept of community gardens has been growing throughout the U.S. in recent years and they got their start in big cities, where apartment or condominium dwellers had no access to garden space. In fact, Davis said PIP got its inspiration from Portland, Ore., which began with one community garden and now has 77. Though people without gardening space in Sheridan participate in the gardens, Davis said the gardens attract some homeowners who may have plenty of yard and gardening space, but lack one very important thing — a 6-foot fence.
“We see the deer haters, because you can’t have a garden in Sheridan unless you have a deer-proof fence,” Davis said about who participates in the gardens. “The motivating factor has been the urban deer population. But we have such a cross section of demographics. We have working people, doctors, authors, retired people. They really do have a community atmosphere.”
In an attempt to continue the community feeling of local gardens, the fences that keep deer out are not locked to keep people out. Despite an initial concern of possible damage to the gardens by vandals, gates are left unlocked and no problems have been reported.
“We have not had a single incidence of vandalism or theft and that is remarkable if you think about it,” Davis said.
Davis is currently working on the construction of a community garden at the new Welch Cancer Center.
The garden is in its beginning stages and he is currently working on fencing, tilling and getting irrigation in place. Though recent severe weather has delayed some of the work, it will be ready for planting in about a week. There will be 25 plots, 15 of which are already reserved. It is located in front of a bank of windows that allows patients receiving treatment to look out at the garden.
One of the largest Sheridan community gardens, Emerson Garden, at 1206 Emerson St., is approximately 50,000 square feet and still has some plots available for use this year.
“It has been a very fun and rewarding experience,” said Julie Chadwick, who helps manage the garden. “I am amazed at the number of community gardens we have here for the population. I got into the first year of Emerson Garden. I hadn’t gardened in 20 plus years. I said ‘OK’ and found out I loved the whole concept.”
Along with Harold Golden, Chadwick now helps assign plots, keep the garden running smoothly and also raises and cares for a dozen chickens that make their home at Emerson Gardens. The land is privately owned and features an old barn that has been in the neighborhood for decades. The barn holds a variety of tools such as wheelbarrows, watering wands, rakes, hoes, shovels and others items that are available for anyone to use to work their plot.
“It is so neat that this program has been subsidized by PIP,” Legerski said. “The way we set it up was that it would be easy to get started. What I am seeing is a lot of people have definitely become hooked on gardening because of the community garden experience.”