Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: After community outpouring, garden at TCC gets a reprieve

Russian and Ukranian immigrants have worked the acre-plus community garden at the Tacoma Community College campus for years.
Russian and Ukranian immigrants have worked the acre-plus community garden at the Tacoma Community College campus for years. Staff photographer

When discussing the fate of the community garden at Tacoma Community College, college President Sheila Ruhland has always maintained she wanted a “win-win” outcome.

It now appears the school has found one.

After two recent meetings between school officials and Harvest Pierce County, the urban agriculture arm of the Pierce Conservation District, Ruhland says that plans to move the garden off school grounds have been scrapped in favor of a pact that will hopefully keep the garden “part of Tacoma Community College for the next 50 years.”

If you’ve been following the story of TCC’s endangered community garden, you know this development is unquestionably great news.

It means a garden that has been on the school’s grounds since the late 1960s gets a reprieve.

It means the roughly 30 local gardeners, many of whom are immigrants from Russia and Ukraine who live in the apartment complexes surrounding the college and have been growing in the spot since the early ’90s, won’t be forced to relocate.

And it means the school, displaying admirable flexibility and a willingness to listen, has avoided an unnecessary black eye.

Perhaps we should call it a win-win-win.

Word of the new plan emerged late last week, and was greeted by the kind of relief and delight you’d expect from a group of gardeners who assumed their pleas would go unanswered and their days working the land at TCC were numbered.

“We just kind of started giving up,” 25-year-old Olga Martemyanova told me in a moment of honesty.

Martemyanova says she and her parents have been gardening at TCC for nearly 15 years, and after signs were posted in August instructing the gardeners to vacate the premises, many had recently started coming to terms with the realization that their “little oasis” would be lost.

“It means a lot,” Martemyanova says of the college’s decision to work to keep the garden on school grounds, where gardeners have spent decades cultivating one of the most impressive patches in Tacoma.

“Now they can continue their peaceful little life of trying to connect with their culture and their community.”

All that now stands between that happening, according to Ruhland and college spokeswoman Tamyra Howser, is the dotting of i’s and the crossing of t’s.

A formal governance agreement between the gardeners, the school and Harvest Pierce County — which works with community gardens across the region in a similar capacity — will need to be hammered out, I’m told, to address land-usage, liability and safety issues.

Safety and liability, of course, as well as a fear that an unsanctioned garden technically violated state law, were issues at the root of the college’s concerns over the garden in the first place — all of it heightened by nearby construction and the expanding footprint of TCC’s health and wellness building.

Initially Ruhland, who joined the college in March and discovered the garden in July, said keeping the garden there would be a long shot, appearing instead to favor a plan that would find the garden a new, nearby home.

Luckily, school officials have come around.

To get around their concerns, the governance agreement will come with a few new rules, some new signs, and perhaps new insurance policies — but nothing too drastic. Just the kinds of assurances that help administrators sleep easier at night.

What’s important, Ruhland says, is the garden will remain where it’s been.

Howser says the process of forging the governance agreement will begin at a public meeting Oct. 29, with the expectation that it will take a month or two and everything will be in place in plenty of time for spring planting.

“I think it’s a victory for the community, and it’s a victory for the school,” Mel Urschel, a retired faculty member who has served as the unofficial “overseer and protector” of the garden for decades, told me by phone shortly after getting the good news.

Urschel was just one of many who rallied for the garden when things didn’t look good. It’s a victory for him too, and plenty of others.

“We did have an outpouring of support from the community about the garden,” Ruhland tells me. “Listening is very, very critical, and that was certainly part of the process.”

“I firmly believe Tacoma Community College is part of the community, and the community is part of the college.”

With this decision, it’s a sentiment that comes through in more than just name.

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