Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A happy ending for Tacoma Community College’s beloved garden

Russian and Ukranian immigrants who have worked more than an acre of land at Tacoma Community College for years banded together after the garden was nearly bulldozed last fall. Their garden will now have official status, leadership and rules.
Russian and Ukranian immigrants who have worked more than an acre of land at Tacoma Community College for years banded together after the garden was nearly bulldozed last fall. Their garden will now have official status, leadership and rules. Staff file, 2015

It didn’t feel much like gardening weather Wednesday night at Tacoma Community College.

Rain blew sideways. My umbrella blew inside out. The darkness of the early evening didn’t seem that much different from the darkness of the day.

Inside the college, however, the business of formalizing TCC’s beloved community garden was at hand.

In a room usually reserved for the college’s student government, roughly 25 gardeners, most immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, gathered for the culmination of a long process.

Considering the democratic work it took to reach this point, the location was fitting.

Many of the gardeners on hand have worked the land at TCC’s community garden — hidden on the edge of campus until new construction put a focus on it last year — for a decade, some longer.

“It’s the best garden we have in the Tacoma area,” Mel Urschel, a retired TCC faculty member who has served as the garden’s unofficial “overseer and protector” since the 1970s, told me last September.

That was right about the time, as you may recall, that new TCC President Dr. Sheila Ruhland discovered the garden herself, which had been an unofficial part of the school’s grounds since not long after the college came into existence in 1965. Understandably, the new president worried about liability issues and the potential consequences of allowing a community garden like this to continue on state-owned land.

Initially, things didn’t look good. Ominous red signs appeared at the garden in August, notifying the gardeners — in three languages — that the end was near. The plan was to bulldoze it, and — best case scenario — find somewhere else for the gardeners to plan their harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, beets and other veggies.

But, luckily, this is a story with a happy ending.

After the plight of the garden became known, the community rallied, at the college and beyond. The response inspired the college to bring in Kristen McIvor, community garden coordinator for the Pierce Conservation District, whose organization will now oversee the garden and who has worked to help the gardeners develop a leadership structure, governance and set of rules that will allow it to continue with TCC’s blessing.

“Once they kind of saw how everybody felt, including the faculty and the neighborhood, I think (TCC’s administration) realized the gravity of the situation,” Urschel says. “They kind of jumped in and put everything behind it.”

Or, as college spokeswoman Tamyra Howser puts it, “We’re a community college. We don’t want to fight with gardeners. We want to help.”

McIvor, who does this sort of work for a living, acknowledges it was no easy process.

“The hard work of community gardening is much more about the community piece than the gardening piece. Gardening is the easy part,” she said. “Getting along with a bunch of other humans … is hard work. It’s an exercise in democracy and being a good person.”

Meetings over the last several months have been long and many. The group needed to pick a leadership team and hash out guidelines for conflict resolution, communication, maintenance and the transparent assignment of plots (no more than two per gardener, with no more “passing” them down). It needed to come up with plans to protect a wetland area, and the gardeners needed to sign paperwork to make sure they were covered as volunteers under the Pierce Conservation District’s insurance policy.

It was all the more challenging with this particular group of gardeners, McIvor says, many from countries where democracy isn’t an ingrained way of life. Meetings required a Russian translator hired by TCC, helping to bridge the communication gap and work through even the smallest disputes.

“This group is pretty unique in that they have cultural and religious divides that are more profound than the typical group we work with,” McIvor says. “Basically, they’re are not as comfortable or familiar with democracy as the people you’re used to working with. … It was complicated.”

Despite the challenges, on Wednesday night the gardeners who make this story worth telling made it official, formally approving all the work that’s been done over the last several months and turning their attention to what’s really important, just in time for spring: the garden.

“I always believe that Tacoma is very grass-roots oriented. And gardens are very important in Tacoma,” Howser says. “I can speak on behalf of the college that we are very excited this worked out. We are excited that we all came to a very collaborative resolution.”

So are a lot of people.