A clash of personalities and differing opinions about what a community garden should look like have uprooted the only community garden program in Lakewood’s Tillicum neighborhood from the local community center.
Now the program’s founder and director is looking for a new home for the program, while the community center’s board of directors says it plans to start its own garden this spring.
Stephanie Cholmondeley who founded the TREE Program in 2012, said the garden was good for local families. The Olympia resident started it in Lakewood because she wanted to connect with children and parents in the low-income Tillicum and Woodbrook neighborhoods and teach them about growing fresh fruits and vegetables.
“There are 11 fast food restaurants (in Tillicum) but no full-service grocery store,” Cholmondeley said. “(Children) think food comes from McDonald’s.”
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She reached an agreement with the community center to operate on the center grounds, and she partnered with the Tillicum branch of the Pierce County Library for educational programming.
The center donated the land for 27 raised beds, gave access to its outside water supply and offered meeting space.
But some on the center’s board say the program didn’t meet expectations. After a tumultuous couple of years and regular disagreements between Cholmondeley and the center’s former executive director, the board told Cholmondeley in November she had until March 15 to remove the garden.
“It turned out not to be what we thought it was going to be,” said Janet Harper, secretary and treasurer of the Tillicum American Lake Gardens Community Service Center board, which operates the center.
“It was being advertised as a community garden,” Harper said, “however, a lot of the community was not able to participate in it.”
Students at Tillicum Elementary and Woodbrook Middle schools were the primary users of the beds, but Cholmondeley said anyone who volunteered 40 hours was given access to plant starts, soil, compost and tools.
The program established farmers markets for students to buy produce with “garden dollars” they earned by helping in the garden. It offered regular lesson plans, provided kids a healthy snack and a place to go after school, and donated a portion of its harvest to the food bank at the community center.
“What we’re trying to do is develop gardeners and a sense of social connectedness,” Cholmondeley said. “TREE is not just a gardening program; it is actually about growing a local food economy.”
Harper questioned the type of food grown in the gardens.
“They were plants I had never seen,” she said. “My perception of a garden is carrots and onions and peas and things like that.”
An inventory list of last year’s plantings showed everything from snap peas, radishes and sweet corn to Swiss chard, kale and collard greens. Carrots and onions were also planted.
For less-known produce such as collard greens or kale that Tillicum families might not have cooked before, Cholmondeley included recipes and talked to parents about how to prepare them, she said.
Longtime Tillicum resident Dennis Dille, who volunteered with the garden after his three granddaughters got involved, said learning about unfamiliar produce was “interesting.”
“I’d say this type of program, yes, it’s good for the kids and it’s also good for the parents to get out of the houses, leave the drugs alone and start getting involved,” he said.
With spring fast approaching, Cholmondeley hopes to find a new home for the garden soon. She has looked at seven sites in Tillicum, but none are available.
“We’re hoping to get the message out to make an appeal because we have definitely shed blood and sweat and tears for this to continue,” she said. “I’m still hopeful that this will all work out.”