Community garden in West Eugene: a cultural hotspot for green thumbs | News

Tucked behind Kennedy Middle School lies Churchill Community Garden, engulfed in green and peppered with purples, pinks and yellows from native flowers.

Two women carrying supplies out of the garden’s gates chat in Spanish and follow the puddled path leading back to the school.

Near the back of the garden, three bee boxes and an uplifted saucer of water provide refuge for the bees visiting the garden. Several of them hover around their sanctuary despite the light rain.

Managed by the non-profit Huerto de la Familia and originally created by FOOD For Lane County, the garden is about two decades old and has served as an affordable way for people in the West Eugene community to grow their own food. Beyond this, the garden is a cultural hotspot, where members of the community come together to speak different languages, educate themselves on gardening and celebrate their passion for growing.

With a 15 by 20 foot plot being only $15, the garden serves 65 to 70 families for a low cost, Garden Program Manager Gatlin Fasone Alshuyukh said.

“Low-income communities and Spanish-speaking communities have been traditionally excluded from the current community garden setup that Eugene has because it’s hard for these families to fit into the current community garden system as it’s designed,” Krystal Abrams, a volunteer with the garden, said.

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Krystal Abrams pointing to an Oregon Grape plant in her pollinator garden. (Alexis Weisend/Emerald)

She often sees people who have been tending their plots since 5 a.m. as she enters the garden’s gates at 7 a.m.

“I’m like ‘wow.’ This is such an important place for folks to grow all the foods that they need to feed their families,” she said. “They may not be able to afford fresh produce or drive to the store to get it when they need it.”

Beyond having a sense of food security, the garden allows its growers — who are mostly from Mexico or Guatemala — to grow culturally appropriate food, like the plants quelites, verdolaga, chipil, Fasone Alshuyukh said.

“That’s one of the things that’s beautiful about the garden,” she said. “We’re able to maintain these traditions and maintain these recipes by actually growing the food because you can’t find it at the store.”

Abrams is also the communications manager for the environmental justice non-profit Beyond Toxics. She helps maintain a plot in the garden full of native plants and leads educational workshops.

“I specifically want to showcase the first foods of this area to people that don’t have the knowledge about what foods grew here prior to colonization and how they might be able to use them for medicine or for food or materials today,” Abrams said.

She calls the patch where her native plants are grown “the pollinator patch” because the plants attract pollinators like bees and butterflies. The creatures flood the patch because, besides some wetlands, there are no good pollinator habitats in that area, she said.

“But this place has got the floral resources for a wide range of pollinators in the area, so I do see it as a key point in that area to protect or to feed pollinator species and also to feed people.”

However, the rainy weather has posed a challenge for the garden, which is still quite green but thick with mud. Last year, extremely hot days created the opposite effect, drying out the soil.

People still come to the garden to tend their plots regardless. Esmeralda Manzo, a garden assistant and a senior at the University of Oregon, said her favorite part about the garden is being able to speak her first language of Spanish with the members.

“It just always feels like a little piece of home when I’m there,” she said.

The garden is one-of-a-kind in Eugene due to its emphasis on culture and community, Fasone Alshuyukh said.

“Folks are speaking their first language, whether it be an indigenous language or Spanish,” she said. “I think that’s important because it creates community. It creates a sense of belonging.”

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