Feb. 5, 2020 — Florence First Harvest Community Gardens is now located at Rolling Dunes Park at 35th Street and Siano Loop, next to the tennis courts. Before residents can come in and start planting, however, some work needs to be done.
According to restaurateur, chef and longtime gardener Gayle Sisson, garden coordinator, “We’re waiting for the weather to lighten up a little bit. I know I don’t want to work in this rainy weather. And we need to get some people signed up and get some work parties going. We have lots to do to get ready for spring.”
The Florence First Harvest Community Gardens was founded in 2013 through a community effort, including donations of labor, soil, wood and even seeds.
At the end of summer 2019, the community garden moved after the City of Florence partnered with DevNW, formerly NEDCO, to use the previous site on 15th Street for a housing development to create 12 “cottage cluster” affordable homes. Florence Public Works helped prepare the site of the new garden, placed First Harvest’s small blue shed and installed a fence.
Now, the garden is waiting for volunteers to come build new raised beds and continue improvements to the property. Only five of the raised beds were in good enough condition to move.
Since the new site is smaller than the 15th Street location, Sisson plans on fitting 20 beds into the community garden. To participate, people need to fill out an application. Each bed is just $25, or less for people with a need.
“We have great sun exposure here,” she said. “Once we get this established, we’ll be going year-round.”
This is the first year that gardeners haven’t been able to plant winter crops, which in the past have included sprouting broccoli, kale and Swiss chard.
“At home, I have lots of Swiss chard,” Sisson said. She advised putting the leafy vegetable into a frittata, like she used to make for Heceta Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast.
Now is also the time for people to start their spring seeds, either inside or in good soil.
“It’s that time,” Sisson said. “Peas can be planted in the ground now. The only danger is if you don’t have good, drainable soil, things can rot with all this rain. … I was thinking about planting some peas myself.”
Common crops people grow at the community garden include beets, potatoes, kale, Swiss chard, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, strawberries, beans, peas, spinach, garlic, onions and chives.
“It’s a good variety,” Sisson said. “Our chives were fabulous. I made some great chive vinegar and it’s so beautiful.”
One rule of the garden is that trailing plants can’t encroach on other beds, so people have to train them up or choose different varieties. Another rule is that pesticides cannot be used.
“That’s one of our rules because people are allergic and don’t want to be eating it,” Sisson said.
Because the garden is all natural, pollinators should be able to do their jobs well, especially if people introduce specific plants for the bees, bats and butterflies.
Sisson thinks there might be room for straw bale gardens, vermiculture and other innovations.
“There’s lots of opportunities to try new things here,” she said.
The community garden abuts the fence around the tennis courts at Rolling Dunes Park.
“Often times there are people here for pickleball,” Sisson said. “There’s a lot more traffic and activity around the garden than there was at our old space. We should have a lot safer gardening.”
In addition, there are other benefits to the new site.
“What’s really great about this park is we have a parking lot, restrooms, picnic tables and a barbecue,” Sisson said. “If we want to have a little event where everyone comes together and works in the garden, we can have a picnic when we’re done. Let’s all pick some fresh stuff out of our gardens and have it for lunch!”
The garden is also more accessible, located all on one level and right next to the parking lot.
It is also much safer since it is located inside a neighborhood and along a main street.
“There’s lots of people around, it’s more open and lit up and you can’t hide too well,” Sisson said.
The old location was enough out of the way that certain tools went missing, and deer and other thieves sometimes stole crops. One notable theft left gardeners “beet.”
“It was a mystery. We couldn’t figure out why someone had picked all of one bed’s beets, right before the gardener was coming in to harvest them,” Sisson said.
The garden has almost everything a person might need to garden, including shovels, rakes, hoses, little forks and a wheelbarrow for communal use. It will also continue the tradition of a community bed for herbs.
For Sisson, she plans to plant items she doesn’t have room for in her own garden. Other people may not have a yard at all or have one, but the conditions aren’t right. In the past, people have rented enough beds to provide food for multiple families or to teach their children how to garden.
Sisson, who has been gardening for most of her life, remembers her first personal garden at 19.
“I planted a bunch of tomato seeds, and I went outside at dusk in early spring. I could smell the tomato plants,” she said. “It was almost dark, but I got down and felt around — and they had come up! It was such a fabulous feeling.”
For Sisson, tomatoes have been a crop that hasn’t done as well for her in Oregon. “Tomatoes are my favorite food in the world, but I love green beans and all that kind of stuff, too. If we can just get over the fact that you can’t have lots of tomatoes, there’s lots you can grow here,” she said.
Besides gardener sign ups, the other things Florence First Harvest Community Gardens needs are soil, wood chips and untreated cedar or redwood to create more beds.
“I’m really excited about it, and we’ve got one woman who is just dying to come in here and get planted,” Sisson said. “We just have to get some bodies signed up and get them in here as we make decisions on how we want it to look.”
To participate in the community gardens, contact Sisson at 541-999-1172 or [email protected] or visit www.facebook.com/pg/FFHcommunitygardens/.