Soil & Strife 

Conflict and water woes mark an urban garden’s demise

Rebecca Wallace shovels up the remains of her garden plot at the Lettuce Bee Community Garden on May 2. - COLBY FRAZIER
  • Colby Frazier
  • Rebecca Wallace shovels up the remains of her garden plot at the Lettuce Bee Community Garden on May 2.

In early April, Cayman Thomas planted 200 pea plants in a pair of 12-foot-by-4-foot raised garden beds at the dilapidated tennis courts at Fairmont Park in Sugar House.

He eagerly watched as the plants grew, hopeful that a bountiful harvest was around the corner.

But as quickly as this life took root, it died. In the waning days of April, Thomas uprooted every single pea plant. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he says.

This growing season was to be the last at the garden, located at 2225 S. 900 East, which started in 2011 as a pilot project between Salt Lake City and the Sugar House Community Garden. Nearby residents speculate that the tennis courts, which abut the Utah Transit Authority’s streetcar line, will soon sprout condominiums.

But through a combination of infighting and botched attempts this year to obtain a more secure supply of water, the 2014 growing season ended before it could truly begin.

Bridget Stuchly, the city’s sustainability program manager, says the idea for the garden sprung to life just as she was attempting to formulate ways to promote community gardens in the city.

Stuchly says the city tried to cement clear parameters for how the garden needed to be managed.

“Unfortunately, we started to have issues pretty quickly after the garden was established,” Stuchly says.
Rules were continuously broken, she says, but declined to say which rules or by whom, citing potential litigation between gardeners.

Rather than allowing Sugar House Community Garden and its founder, Heidi Spence, to continue managing the garden, Stuchly says Wasatch Community Gardens—which has a contract with the city to manage other gardens on municipal property—was brought in to oversee the space for this final year.

With 25 years of experience, Wasatch Community Gardens has a successful model that involves democratic decision-making and rules set by the gardeners.

Resistance by some of the gardeners to this model, though, was immediate. It even reared its head in the renaming of the garden to Lettuce Bee Urban Garden, translated to “let us be.” Thomas says contention from Spence’s tenure overseeing the garden through its first three growing seasons spilled into 2014.

Spence acknowledges that controversy surrounding irrigation issues irked some at the city, and likely contributed to the garden’s early demise.

In prior years, the city allowed gardeners to tap into a nearby irrigation ditch. But when residents with water rights downstream complained they weren’t receiving their water, it became clear changes needed to be made.

The solution, says Ashley Patterson, executive director of Wasatch Community Gardens, was to plumb into the city’s culinary water supply. As these efforts were afoot, however, Patterson says gardeners continued taking water from the irrigation ditch.

And unbeknownst to Patterson, a contractor hired to connect the garden to the city’s water system commenced work before obtaining the proper permits.

The water system was eventually completed, but it was never turned on.

Given the conflicts, Patterson says Wasatch—with the city’s blessing—made the decision to cut support for the garden and focus on its permanent gardens.

“It was requiring more management without receiving any kind of resolution,” she says.

Controversy or not, Spence says that the garden was never supposed to be permanent and she’s relieved that many of the small plots found new permanent homes.

On May 2, Rebecca Wallace was busy packing up the last of her plot. She plans to continue her garden at home.

Wallace says the reasons for the hasty move are “due to squabbles and bickers,” but she was looking at things on the bright side.

“It’s a change of plans,” she says, noting that Wasatch refunded her $45 plot fee. “We knew that this was the last year for the garden. I’m glad that at least before the start of the warm season we got the word out.” 

Twitter: @ColbyFrazierLP

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