Stu Vannerson had a decision to make: He knew he couldn’t keep up with his community gardening and his job at Intel.
So he picked the garden and retired.
“Everyone in retirement needs something that gives you fulfillment and challenge,” Vannerson said. “This does it in spades for me.”
Vannerson was a founder of the Intel-DuPont community garden in DuPont. It’s one of more than 60 gardens seeded throughout Pierce County, with 34 in Tacoma.
The gardens are shared private or public land used as either individual or group plots. They give people a place to grow crops when they might not have sunny space in their own yard, said gardening expert John Valentine.
Beyond providing fruit and vegetables, supporters say, gardens offer ways to reduce hunger in the community, educate residents on the environment and give people a place to connect.
Harvest Pierce County works with individuals and groups to create community gardens. The group, which began in 2010, partners with the Pierce County Conservation District.
The City of Tacoma also encourages community gardens and has provided land and resources, said Kristen McIvor, community garden coordinator with the conservation district.
Anyone can open a community garden. Those on public land in the county go through three stages of planning, designing and building. Some gardens provide produce to area food banks in the area, but that’s not a requirement.
Though you can’t walk onto a community garden and start taking the food the harvest of the Food Forest at Swan Creek Park, near East 42nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Tacoma, is available to anyone.
The founders of the Intel-DuPont community garden pride themselves on giving back to the community through providing goods to local food banks.
The garden was started in 2009, when Intel’s CEO encouraged employees across the country to increase their service to their communities.
Because they had agricultural experience, employees at the DuPont location started a community garden on the Intel campus. It started with only five beds, but over the years grew into one of the largest community gardens in the county.
As the garden expanded, organizers invited residents to take part. For $50, a new gardener gets a bed with soil and irrigation. Annual $50 payments go toward keeping the garden running.
Gardeners must donate at least half of their harvest to local food banks. In reality, about 85 percent of the fruit and vegetables grown are donated each year, Vannerson said.
Intel provided land for the garden, as well as a refrigerator, an irrigation system and fence to keep deer out. The company also donates $10 an hour for each current or former employee who works with non-profit organizations.
In the past four years, gardeners have built two greenhouses so fresh produce can be grown year-round. Most of the outside garden beds produce food between March and October, with certain crops, such as kale, continuing into the winter.
The garden provides food banks with a variety of produce throughout the year. Gardeners donate twice a week and are partners with Lakes FISH Food Bank and the Thurston County Food Bank.
“We try to produce a vast diversity of crops here,” said Gurbir Singh, a retired Intel employee and garden volunteer.
Singh said he focuses on infrastructure for the garden. His latest project is working with hydroponics in the greenhouse to produce more crops in the off-season.
The garden brings in experts to share their knowledge with the community gardeners. Valentine, for example, teaches classes on how to harvest and store produce.
He said he was drawn to gardening because of the taste of fresh produce and the challenge of growing things that usually can’t be grown.
Community gardening isn’t just about growing food, Singh said. It’s also about meeting new people and establishing a bond.
“It’s a great opportunity to be a part of the community,” he said. “I could sit at home and watch TV, but this is better.”