EDIBLE ESTATES regional prototype garden #5: AUSTIN, texas
Estate owners: Sierra Ridge, Foundation Communities
Location: Austin, Texas
Commissioned by: Arthouse at the Jones Center
USDA plant hardiness zone: 8
Established: March 14–16, 2008
Garden exposure: North
Size of garden: 32 x 50 feet
The garden was commissioned by Arthouse as a companion to the exhibition Fritz Haeg: Attack on the Front Lawn, from Jan. 26th - March 16th, 2008. Sundown Schoolhouse offered a series of weekly workshops, How to Eat Austin, lead by Austin residents on composting, gardening, permaculture, and what it means to grow your own food in Austin.
One goal of the Edible Estates regional prototype gardens is to demonstrate the possibilities for growing food in front of a variety of housing types. Austin, Texas, is a very progressive city, and in 2008 there were already plenty of examples of front-yard vegetable gardens at single-family homes around town. Apartment buildings surrounded by vacant lawns are a common sight along the periphery of Austin, as they are in cities around the world. Apartment residents may feel they do not have a stake in the open land that is around them; they may even feel unwelcome to initiate gardens in the land just outside their windows.
In response to our announcement searching for an Austin apartment complex to undertake an Edible Estates garden, we heard from the affordable housing providers Foundation Communities. The group’s properties primarily serve low-income individuals and families, many of whom were formerly homeless. Foundation Communities also provides children’s programs and social services to this population. From its properties, we selected the Sierra Ridge apartment complex as the site for the garden. The 150-unit building was separated from a busy street by a vast open lawn just waiting for something to happen.
Over one weekend in mid-March, around seventy people, both Sierra Ridge residents and local volunteers, descended on the lawn to make a garden. Of the residents who turned out to help plant the garden, most were the children and teenagers, close to twenty-five of them. Without being asked, they turned out in force to dig holes for trees, shovel dirt, move compost, plant seeds, and rake mulch. This has been true at every Edible Estates garden: the kids are always first on the scene to make the garden, and they are the most optimistic for its future. The land at Sierra Ridge continues today as a communal garden without individual plots, functioning not only as a place in which to gather and produce food but also as an educational space for the children who tend it as it grows with them.
DESIGN, PLANTS, AND MATERIALS
The garden is an oasis of green space that connects the apartments to the sidewalk. The design of the garden provides places in which to grow food and oval spaces where harvest gatherings and other activities, as well as composting and rainwater catchment can take place. Each oval is surrounded and framed by a different plant, such as rosemary hedges and fruit trees, to provide a sense of enclosure. The raised beds are made from a combination of locally scavenged rocks and boulders and donated cypress logs. Each space is connected to the next by a narrow path, creating walkways that allow residents to easily tend the crops or simply wander among the plants. It is a social pleasure garden that also happens to produce food for those who tend it.
Central Texas is a very challenging place in which to grow food, especially in the long, hot, dry summer. We planted everything we could find that technically should produce food in this growing zone, with the idea that the residents could see what was possible, what did well, and what they liked to eat, allowing the garden to evolve into a beautiful space they can manage while it also provides sustenance. The residents updated us on what was thriving in the garden in the late summer, eighteen months after the initial planting:
sage (various varieties)
Fruit trees and bushes:
berries (various varieties)
GARDEN REPORT FROM SIERRA RIDGE
Sierra Ridge is an apartment complex in southern Austin owned and run by the Austin-based nonprofit Foundation Communities, which provides long-term, affordable housing solutions. Sierra Ridge has a strong sense of community, and the residents are hard-working, mostly low-income families who take great pride in keeping the buildings and surrounding landscape safe and attractive. Though Austin is home to many community gardens, the expense associated with owning a plot in one is not realistic for most of the apartment residents, so they were thrilled to have Sierra Ridge selected as the site for Edible Estates Regional Prototype Garden #5. The installation and planting took place over three days with the help of volunteers and residents, many of whom had no previous gardening experience. Some residents initially were uncertain if the garden would survive after the novelty of its planting had passed. Those doubts have all been erased, and the unique nature of Sierra Ridge has made the garden a giant success. Not every plant from the first season stuck around, but residents have learned which types of produce and herbs can survive the hot Texas summers—such as artichokes, peppers, and rosemary—and which ones will wilt before ripening. Residents truly consider Sierra Ridge home, and because of that, people have planted roots not just in their units but also in the soil on the front lawn. Though most adults at the complex did not take part in the planting, the children of Sierra Ridge turned out enthusiastically to help community volunteers lay the beds and put in the plants. The garden has also caught the eye of more than just those who call Sierra Ridge home. The Travis County Master Gardeners Association has taken an interest in maintaining the garden, and several neighbors in the area have picked out small plots in which to plant their own produce.
Reflecting on the planting, Darrell Gibson, a nineteen-year-old who calls Sierra Ridge home, says, “It was an unforgettable experience. It was fun working on it . . . .Overall, I’m glad to have been part of our garden’s creation. It’s not every day that our community comes together to work on one project as a whole.”
Darrell’s pride is shared by many of his friends at Sierra Ridge. “I love my garden so much!” shares Lanna Marie Payne, age nine. “We have lots of beautiful plants.” Lanna and Darrell both attend Sierra Ridge’s after-school learning center and continue to work in and enjoy the garden as part of that program. Their classmate Evelyn Galindo adds, “My experience planting the garden was amazing. We planted mandarins and got dirty; it was fun that I’ll never forget. I love working in the garden because you get to be with friends outside and you get to help the environment.”
Sierra Ridge Manager Martha Villareal says the garden has helped deepen the sense of community. “Many residents and neighbors told the property managers how wonderful it was to have been selected to plant a community garden on site. The children now know how vegetables actually grow, and they understand that the products they see in the grocery store are there thanks to people who work daily to provide these beautiful vegetables and fruits for their families. We are very fortunate to have the garden, and our residents are very dedicated to maintaining it. Regardlessof how hot it gets here, they are in the garden. They love it.”
Resident Charles DiTullio, whose apartment looks out directly on the garden, has been involved since day one. After helping with the installation of the garden, he worked with community members and local gardening clubs to bring in new plants and educate his neighbors about gardening, and he even maintains a tool shed outside his apartment to help with the garden’s upkeep. “I love the garden,” Charles says. “It’s such a beautiful view out my window, and I can practically reach out and pull fruit off the trees without leaving my apartment!”
Husband-and-wife team Juan Pescador and Maricela Rodriguez have also taken on the stewardship of the garden. “It’s been a great pleasure having the fresh produce from the garden,” says Maricela. “I get great joy working in the garden, and my husband also enjoys being involved in tending it. He is a natural gardener; ever since he was a young boy, he has had a green thumb with everything he plants. I assign him the real heavy work, like if a plant needs to have the dirt turned, and he makes sure all the plants are doing well. I find it relaxing to water plants in the evenings, and I like to harvest the vegetables and fruits. When I start supper and I notice I don’t have a certain herb, I just look out my kitchen window to see what is out there and then go pick whatever I need,” she continues. “I don’t have to stop in the middle of fixing supper and go to the grocery store. We’ve had strawberries, cucumbers, hot peppers, sweet peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, squash, figs, pears, and mandarins. I make soups, salsa, and fresh fruit drinks, all with what the garden has provided.” (Translated from Spanish)
Text from EDIBLE ESTATES: ATTACK ON THE FRONT LAWN (Metropolis Books, 2nd Ed., 2010)
Arthouse, January 26–March 16, 2008, for the exhibition Fritz Haeg: Attack on the Front Lawn
Whole Foods Market
McDugald-Steele, Austin Gardens, Big Red Sun, Jill and Dennis McDaniel, and Melba and Ted Whatley; media sponsorship by Edible Austin
Resident and local volunteer garden workers Jon Allison, Ilea Avalos, Mario Badillo, Alpha Balde, Bryan Beltran, Cindy Beltran, Adam Boley, Charles DiTullio, Jennifer Dunnam, Maria Fernandez, Evelyn Galindo, Juliet Gamarci, Claudio Garcia, Jess Garcia, Miguel Garcia, Jeremiah Gardener, Stephen Gardener, Daryl Gibson, Zachary Gibson, Daniella Gomez, Jessica Gomez, Karen Gomez, Maria Elena Gomez, Raymundo Gomez, Ruben Gomez, Rudy Gorostieta, Travis Greig, John Hallock, Barbara Hampson, Brent Hasty, Suzanne Hurley, Julie Killingsworth, Brett Koenig, Elizabeth Lee, Melanie Letot, Karen Lyons, Alexis Martinez, Jess Martinez, Maria Martinez, James Matchett, Tala Matchett, Dan Murphy, Lanna Payne, Wendy Redding, Flo Rice, George Rojano, Dylan Rojas, Zachary Rojas, Oscar Sanchez, Lilia Sanpedro, Travis Seay, Elaine Shen, Ben Slade, Meghan Smith, Sandi Smith, Katie Sternberg, Rachel Tepper, Melissa Torrente, Brian Torrez, Cheyenne Weaver, Ann Williams, Alicia Wong, and Margaret Wong; Melba and Ted Whatley, for their gracious hospitality Melanie Curiel and Martha Villarreal, Sierra Ridge; Christopher Alberts, Sunshine Mathon, and Vicki McDonald at Foundation Communities; Melissa Berry, Elizabeth Dunbar, Jenn Gardner, Sue Graze, Nathan Green, Virginia Jones, Catherine O'Neill, and Caitlin Sweeney at Arthouse at the Jones Center
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