The Washington group is planning community gardening efforts

A photo of Boot Hill, where an as yet unnamed group in Washington is hoping for city permission to build a community garden. (photo submitted)

Kerrie Willis, Instructor Coach at Washington High School, was recognized by the World Food Prize Foundation for her plans to link education, food security and community action in Washington. She said the proposed garden is a first step in this much larger project. (photo submitted)

Andy Dahl, University of Iowa arborist and member of the Washington Tree Committee. (photo submitted)

WASHINGTON — A still unnamed group of teachers, activists and local officials presented their plans for a community garden to the Washington City Council last week. Members said the effort would have myriad benefits for residents.

“Our organization’s mission and vision is to create connections in the community,” said group member Kerrie Willis. “Connections in as many ways as you can imagine, from many walks of life.”

Details of the plan are still being ironed out. Willis said the range is between 10 and 30 trees for an orchard and 10 to 30 plots for a garden.

“We need to make sure we can fund that and have space for that, so right now that number is still in flux,” she said. “We are not that far yet. We had to go to the city council first…before we get too far into the planning, we wanted to make sure we proceed.”

At least Willis said the project would bring nutritious food to the community. However, the overall picture is much more ambitious.

Willis was recognized by the 2021 World Food Prize Foundation for her vision to connect food security to a network of community activities, educational endeavors and organizations. She said the community garden was a first step in this broader concept map that would involve and impact a larger number of people.

“This is the beginning,” she said. “Achieving what my vision is is probably more between now and year 10… that’s the first step of a much bigger vision and I think our vision is only limited by how many people can see a connection.” “

The educational aspect of this plan concerns Lydia Davis, a member of the group and an environmental sciences teacher at Washington High School.

Davis said she hopes to use the community garden for in-school and after-school programs that would teach students the process of growing food. Classes would cover everything from taking care of a crop to the science of growing winter cover crops.

“There are a lot of possibilities, I’m not sure how it will look like yet,” she said.

In any case, Davis said that the practical space of a garden would provide learning experiences that would be difficult to replicate in a classroom.

“They invest this work, they see the fruits of their effort,” she said. “So much of their learning is reading and writing, and this hands-on bit of science really gets kids excited about the things they’re doing.”

The proposed site on Boot Hill — between Washington High School and Woodlawn Cemetery, at the west end of Van Buren Street — is owned by the city. Group members said it was already connected to the water main for easy installation of a faucet and offered educational benefits thanks to its proximity to the school.

Andy Dahl, another member of the group, is a University of Iowa campus arborist and an active member of Washington’s own tree committee. He led a similar initiative to create a community garden on the site of what is now Washington’s Wellness Park a few years ago.

While that plan never came to fruition, Dahl said this time would be different.

“We just didn’t have all of our ducks lined up at that point, there wasn’t a really good spot that we had identified as possible,” he said. “We’ve progressed further in the process, done a little more research. I think it was actually the property this time that was the driving factor.”

The group has not yet submitted a cost estimate for its project. The upfront cost includes a fire hydrant and piece of pipe for the property, labor to till the garden beds, and fruit trees that the group chooses to purchase through the tree committee.

Dahl said the group is looking into funding opportunities and is optimistic about the price.

“I think it’s going to be surprisingly affordable,” he said. “From what we’ve come up with, there really won’t be a huge cost, at least initially. If we think about maybe putting in some raised gardens in the future, maybe that will incur some costs, but for now I think we can get that off the ground in a short amount of time.”

The logistics of the proposed garden are also undecided. Users could theoretically have their own plot of land under annual contracts, or the effort could be more collective. For fruit trees, product would likely be first come, first served.

“There are many cities that have had templates and we are working on what will become Washington’s,” Dahl said. “There may be a small fee for renting a place, there will be some rules.”

Overall, Dahl said these templates showed a promising future for garden plans.

“We have an orchard here at work with about 70 trees that’s just open to everyone,” he said. “It’s really well received, there’s never any fruit on it…I haven’t heard anything negative except, ‘You should plant more trees there!'”

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