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Growing up: Suwanee's community garden increasing in popularity

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. James Mitchell, 4, helps his grandfather Don carry a bag of soil toward their plot at The Harvest Farm Community Garden in Suwanee. The garden has become so popular that there is a waiting list for plots.

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. James Mitchell, 4, helps his grandfather Don carry a bag of soil toward their plot at The Harvest Farm Community Garden in Suwanee. The garden has become so popular that there is a waiting list for plots.

SUWANEE -- An idea that was planted just a couple of years ago sprouted first into a plan, then a full-grown reality in White Street Park in Suwanee's Old Town district. The Harvest Farm Community Garden, an intelligently planned and artistically pleasing seven-acre plot of land that used to be known as the Williams farm, is bursting with color -- flowers, vegetables, herbs and dirt so rich you can smell it. Smiling faces can also be found there at just about any time of day.

Jessica Roth, Suwanee's assistant to city manager Marty Allen, is passionate about this garden that really started out years ago as an experiment, an idea, a possibility that Roth just knew would take hold with Suwanee families.

The city bought the land with open space bond money in 2003. At the time, there were no definite plans for its use.

"It was one of the last farm areas in Suwanee. It pays a tribute to our past, and we wanted to pay homage to our agrarian past," Roth said of ideas that were being kicked around for the best possible use of the land.

In the spring of 2009, University of Georgia graduate student Amy Conway contacted Suwanee and pitched a senior project, a requirement for earning her degree in landscape architecture. City staff saw an opportunity to have Conway analyze the soil, light and other factors that would be necessary to support a community garden. As luck would have it, the land was perfect for just such a use. Staff members budgeted for the project.

Also in the spring of 2009, Landscape Architect Sean Murphy teamed up with Roth and Farmer D, a nationally renowned landscape architect with a flair for planning successful community gardens.

"It's been fascinating to see how much community gardening has grown in just a couple of years," Roth said. Even just a couple of years ago, a large, established community garden would have about 35 plots. Smaller ones offered maybe 10. So when Roth told Murphy that she wanted at least 50 plots, "he thought I was crazy."

In fact, when Roth took on the job of laying out the individual plots in the garden, she was able to get 76.

"Then (Murphy) really laughed and said there was no way we'd get that many people to participate, especially in the first year. I told him, 'You don't know Suwanee like I do.'"

Sure enough, every plot of land in the garden that first year (2010) was sold. In fact, every plot was sold before it even opened. Today, there is a waiting list of about 12 people.

"I get asked almost daily when we'll add more plots. It's in the plans, but not in the immediate future," Roth said. She feels that, in the Phase II expansion, she can get as many plots laid out as she did the first time around.

The farm committee and managing board are very involved with maintaining the garden today and planning for its future.

"We want to add handicapped-accessible plots," said Roth, adding that there are two chickens and future plans for goats, rabbits and other animals. "Families take turns caring for the chickens a week at a time. We originally had three, but 'Lavender' turned out to be a 'Larry."

Larry now lives in a petting zoo and travels to schools and other groups to educate children about farm animals.

"We have taken the community garden concept here in Suwanee to a whole new level," said Roth, noting that classes are available to gardeners that involve both gardening and cooking. She would love to have an outdoor kitchen in the garden.

Another crown jewel in the garden is the 2,500-gallon cistern, which holds rainwater runoff from the barn roof.

"We really wanted one, especially Mayor Williams," said Roth, but the $15,000 price tag meant that the cistern had to be moved to a back burner. But Metal Products, a Suwanee company, built and painted a cistern for the garden and donated it to the city.

"We are so excited. This is a community project. It's so nice to see families, parents and children, out here working in their gardens. You'll hear someone yell, 'Hey, I have a lot of basil. Anyone need some?' The sense of community is so wonderful."

Even people who do not have garden plots at Harvest Farm enjoy going out to the garden and just looking, smelling and watching. Rosalie Tubre, a master gardener, has taught the special education classes at Peachtree Ridge High School how to successfully work their garden and make the most of what it can produce. What started out as a teacher request for a one-time class taught by Tubre has turned into a once-a-week-for-two-years relationship. The students are close to earning their Junior Master Gardener certification.

"They absolutely love her. You can tell she's passionate about gardening," said Roth.

There have been critics. Some say the project cost too much ($130,000 for everything inside the fence). Others say there are better uses of city employee time. But take a drive out there early one morning or in the evening, and you'll likely leave with gardening fever.

If you do, small plots cost $50 per year; medium $75 and large $100 annually. City residents get a 25 percent discount. But remember, there is a waiting list.


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