Getting back to the garden


While yards for gardening are left off most apartment rental contracts, Iowa City offers a share of soil to any fresh-food fan in need.

At a local community garden in Wetherby Park, anyone can rent strips of land to plant her or his garden. And this year, plots sold out quicker than ever before.

Within 24 hours, green-thumbed locals purchased 74 plots for planting this spring, and more names remain on a waiting list. Iowa City resident Jeanette Lalor was up by sunrise on April 1 to guarantee a space. Because the 66-year-old doesn’t have enough room to garden at home, she was determined to nab a spot to grow her zucchini, tomatoes, and squash.

“It’s so nice to come out here and pick your own lettuce before dinner,” she said. “This garden offers the most wonderful therapy, mentally and physically.”

More people lined up for rentals this April faster than any year before, said Tammy Neumann, a Parks and Recreation employee in charge of registration.

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“New people have even e-mailed me this year, interested in growing at the garden for the first time because of the economy,” she said.

But for many digging into the Wetherby Park plots, the labor is not a money-saving tactic. It’s a love for fresh food.

“The real benefit here is that you can keep food local,” said Fred Meyer, the founder of Backyard Abundance, a local environmental group. “We’ve become more and more conscious of how far food has to travel before it gets to an Iowa dinner table, and when you are given the opportunity to grow your own food, it just doesn’t get much more local than that.”

Iowa City residents Lauren and Doina Johnson rented a 10-by-50-foot tilled plot for $19, the going rate for anyone living in the city limits. This spring is the couple’s eighth year gardening from the community garden, located a little more than two miles from their Iowa City condominium.

At home, the elderly couple is not allowed to dig up the complex’s public yard. But instead of resorting to plastic bags of grocery-store produce, the two have packed up the seeds and spades for trips to the park every other day.

“We just love to watch the food grow, to work with it as it goes,” said 67-year-old Doina Johnson, crouching in the dirt by her husband as friendly strangers worked quietly in the surrounding soil.

“If you ever talk to gardeners in the springtime, they’re so excited about getting ready to plant, and that excitement is contagious,” Meyer said. “Just being outside, especially in a community garden where you get to be out in the open with a whole lot of like-minded people, that’s where the fun begins.”

While the Johnsons have been gardening for years, younger residents are taking notice of the money-saving, community-bonding opportunity.

Several plots away from the couple, 26-year-old Leslie Stodden worked Wednesday with two other young friends. She began growing plants at the garden three years ago as a way of eating fresher, healthier food. She looks forward to taking everything from radishes to edamame home to her North Liberty townhouse.

“A lot of young people have started showing interest in the garden,” said Neumann, who estimated at least half of the gardeners to be under 30. “In Iowa City especially, many young people live in apartment complexes or properties that don’t have enough space to accommodate a garden, so this is one great alternative.”

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