Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: How can we save the community garden at Tacoma Community College?

Tacoma Community College was alive with activity Tuesday morning.

Classes were in their second day of the new school year. The parking lot was packed. The college was in the midst of celebrating its 50th birthday. And, as an indication of milestones still on the horizon, construction on TCC’s health and wellness facility filled the air with the sounds of dump trucks and progress.

I was there to see the garden.

The fact that there is a garden at TCC — a community garden, no less, taking up just over an acre of land on the eastern edge of campus — came as a complete surprise to me.

I didn’t know it was there until I got a phone call last week saying its days were perhaps numbered.

So, with a warm September sun climbing in the sky, I found my way past the bustle, past the construction, and past the pavement to a dirt path where retired TCC faculty member Mel Urschel was waiting.

Urschel tells me he has served as an unofficial “overseer and protector” of the garden at TCC for decades.

And what a garden it is. Tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and beets the size of softballs are just a few of the things that fill the 45 plots, cared for by roughly 30 local gardeners. There are even beehives near the back for honey.

For the most part, the garden is the work of a dedicated contingent of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine who live in the apartment complexes surrounding TCC. It’s been that way since the early ’90s, Urschel says. Without yards of their own, this is where they garden — taking the fruits and vegetables of their labor straight home to the dinner table.

“It’s the best garden we have in the Tacoma area,” Urschel looks around and tells me.

As for the gardeners who’ve made it so, Urschel says, “It’s their life.”

As it stands now, all of it will be gone by late October. Ominous red signs suddenly appeared last month, notifying the gardeners — in three different languages — that the end is near.

“We were very surprised,” Urschel told me. “The garden has been here for nearly 50 years.”

Threatened by the nearby construction and the expanding footprint of the health and wellness building, new TCC President Dr. Sheila Ruhland explained to me that the garden presents safety and liability concerns for the college. TCC is on state-owned land, she points out, and state law would seem to prevent the college from gifting the use of this land without getting something in return, like rent.

“Nothing was ever formalized in a way that would protect the college and the gardens,” said Ruhland, who joined the college in March and discovered the garden in July after TCC began preparing for the expansion of the health and wellness building.

The impact of this decision is obviously not lost on her. Throughout our conversation, the TCC president remained hopeful that a solution might emerge — like a new home for the garden being identified. Officials from TCC even met Wednesday with officials from the Pierce Conservation District, and there are now plans for a community gathering at the college next month to explore potential options. TCC spokeswoman Tamyra Howser tells me, “The garden has obviously been a labor of love for a long time, and we have high hopes that our collaboration with the PCD can help them find a new home.”

Ruhland concedes, however, that finding a home on the TCC campus is a long shot, given state law. Most likely, I’m told, any new home for the garden will need to be elsewhere.

The fact that the garden, which was first planted at the college in the late 1960s, needs an advocate like Urschel speaks to the unofficial way it came into existence. Ruhland is right — the garden has no academic affiliation with the college, and it really never has.

As the lore goes, the garden was created by former TCC dean of instruction Dr. Paul Jacobson, not long after the college came into existence in 1965.

Jacobson, long since retired and now nearing his 88th birthday, tells me he saw the unused land at TCC and saw opportunity.

“I looked out on that vast, barren land and I kept thinking, ‘You know, we ought to do something with this,’ ” Jacobson told me by phone from his home in Puyallup.

Richard Perkins, TCC’s first biology teacher, also remembers the organic start to TCC’s community garden.

“The land wasn’t being used for anything else, and (the garden) provided help to the community,” Perkins tells me. “The whole thing is, we were a community college, and we felt that we needed to work within the community and provide opportunities for the entire community.”

Looking out at the garden and the dozen or so immigrant gardeners who gathered Tuesday morning at TCC to plead with me to write something that might save it, I had to think it had been nothing short of an unquestionable success.

“They came to America late. They can’t afford to buy houses. They’re retired people,” Olga Zadniprovsaya said, speaking for the crowd, most of whom don’t speak English. “There’s no other place to go.”

What will they do if the garden is lost? “They’ll cry,” Zadniprovsaya said.

For now, she says, “They pray.”

To boil this narrative down to big bad community college versus poor little community garden wouldn’t be fair, and it wouldn’t do the situation justice. It’s complicated, and identifying a solution that works for everyone — and most importantly doesn’t displace the gardeners who have made the community garden at TCC special — won’t be easy.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

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