For Beth Chisholm, community gardens are much more than just a place to grow something to eat.
"Ten percent is about the food, but 90 percent is about people coming together, building community sharing tools and vegetables," says master gardener and Community First Gardens coordinator with Washington State University's Whatcom County Extension.
Chisholm has the enviable task of handing out a total of $8,000 to $10,000 a year in community garden grants from the Mary Redman Foundation. Since 2008, a dozen local groups have received money, and Chisholm says she knows of dozens of other community gardens in Whatcom County, including ones at schools, churches and neighborhoods.
"The gardens build community resilience and improve neighborhood involvement," she says. "You get to know each other when you're committed to the same thing: providing good food for your- self and others in need, and improving quality of life in the city."
A good example is the Sterling Paz community garden in Bellingham, which was among the first to receive funding in 2008. Located at Sterling Drive Church of Christ, the garden is dedicated to the 50 Hispanic families who live next door at Sterling Meadows Apartments.
"The garden has become a place for their children to gather, learn about local culture and grow the things that are culturally important to them," Chisholm says.
Church administrator Diane Helke is the first to admit that her community didn't know much about gardening when they began.
"We learn as we go, and it's been a great adventure," she says.
There are up to 50 gardeners involved at Sterling Paz, which features both a community garden and raised beds for individuals to garden as they desire.
"For the church, it's given us a chance to work beside our neighbors, get to know them and open up communication and camaraderie," Helke says. "We've really enjoyed it."
The Ferndale Friendship Community Garden also began in 2008 with the goal of giving families who didn't have a place to grow their own food an opportunity to do so. Located by Pioneer Park, the 14,000- square-foot garden soon to be 16,000 square feet is being leased from the city, which provides water for the site and helps with plowing and maintenance.
"If anything needs to be done, the city is there in a minute to do it," says Gloria Perez, the garden's coordinator.
"Last year, they added a water spigot so that elderly gardeners would no longer have to drag hoses far into the garden, which was difficult for them," she says. "The city has been so generous."
There are 24 beds at Ferndale that can be rented to individuals or families each year, as well as a large, five-bed "giving garden" where people grow food for Ferndale Food Bank. Last year, 1,000 pounds of produce were donated, and every individual bed was rented.
The gardeners are a mixed bunch, with singles, retirees, young families and children. Many of them began with little to no experience and are now canning produce they've grown themselves.
"One gardener, Clara Limbacher, is in her 80s and is a wealth of information," Perez says. "She's taken inexperienced gardeners under her wing, giving them advice and answering their questions. Neighbors tend each other's beds when they are out of town, and overall there's been lots of friendship and mentoring going on."
Given the enthusiasm for the garden, Perez and her team have tried to extend the growing season by adding a hoop- house with 10 beds for rent for growing, say, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and tomatillos. There's also a small children's garden, where funding from Alcoa Foundation pays for an educator who creates programming for Ferndale Boys and Girls Club. In the summer, kids plant and learn about vegetables, nutrition and gardening.
Lauren Kramer is a Bellingham freelance writer.