Finding Passion in a Patch of Dirt in Issaquah Highlands
“Gardening is the art that uses flowers and plants as paint, and the soil and sky as canvas.” – Elizabeth Murray
We have a fair amount of gardening artists in our midst here, in Issaquah Highlands. Beyond my own experience as a community gardener, I wanted to know why folks would spend time digging, planting, and weeding away their busy days in a patch of dirt that offered no guarantees to reward their efforts. What is it about looking at a packet of seeds or a tiny seedling plant with such positive expectations?
Our community boasts four different community gardens, totaling 140 patches that are leased by our neighbors on a yearly basis. If you’ve had the pleasure of strolling by the garden patches, you can see for yourself the ever-evolving gardens coming to life and flourishing throughout the spring and summer months. Many still grow through the late fall and winter.
A peek into the delightful Sunset Walk gardens show small, storybook-like garden plots teeming with beautiful plants. From blueberry bushes bursting with berries and tall artichoke plants to an abundance of lettuce, kale, cucumbers, and tomatoes, we know these gardeners enjoy their fresh salads and veggies all summer long. We also know that people who stroll by often stop and gaze at the beauty of the place. I’m one of those people.
I enjoyed spending a sunny afternoon with the irrepressible, Marybeth Koreman. Marybeth, herself a tiny force of nature, gardens in four plots at Sunset Walk.
“I’ve been gardening for 40 years,” she said. “This is my third year here, and I would definitely describe it as my happy place! Put that all in caps!”
Her abundant plots contain peas, carrots, Brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, broccoli, beautiful dahlias, artichokes, and more.
“I basically eat from my garden during most of the year. There are veggies that grow into the winter and I take advantage of that,” Marybeth said.
Her goal is to build even more community with her fellow gardeners, and perhaps organize an end-of-year garden party to show off some of the delicious dishes they make from their own, home-grown produce. Sharing tips, advice, and produce among her fellow gardeners is one of Marybeth’s favorite parts of the garden.
“If I were in my backyard garden, I’d never get to meet the wonderful people who share this space with me,” she said. “That’s the beauty of a community garden.”
Kim Johnson also loves the community aspect to gardening.
“When I bought my condo here three years ago, I realized I had no outdoor space. Finding this community garden was just what I needed,” Kim said.
With the help of other gardeners like Marybeth, Kim learned what grows best and what she likes from her space. Cherry tomatoes and “huge” Better Boy tomatoes are among her favorites.
“And I get to eat my kale all through the winter,” she said.
The community garden is a place where Kim has strong social ties.
“Right after the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders hit, I was bewildered with uncertainty,” she said. “I live alone, and I really felt that isolation. I came to the garden, and I was excited to see other gardeners here. We all kept a safe distance, but it was just wonderful to find a place where I could safely interact in this calming environment with neighbors who share the same interests.”
Avid gardeners, Debbie and Tom Braceland, left a 4 acre garden on their farm in Georgia to spend time in Issaquah Highlands with their granddaughter, Stella Freygang, daughter of residents Steven and Whitney Freygang.
“We love gardening and so badly wanted to share our passion with Stella,
Debbie said. “We leased this plot and spend as much time as possible with her here. I absolutely love to have my hands in the dirt, and I wanted my grandchild to grow up with that experience as well.”
Their tomatoes, lettuces, and other organic greens all started from seed and, aside from the occasional slug invasion, are healthy and prolific.
“We have slugs in Georgia, but nothing like the slugs you have here,” Tom said.
They bury Solo cups to the rim and fill them with beer every other day to successfully eradicate the pesky creatures.
Another gardener, Poon Wallace, wears a permanent smile even while wearing a face mask, abundantly evident by her sparkling eyes and the spring in her step. In her third year at Sunset Walk gardens, Poon describes gardening as her hobby.
“Sometimes I just want to get away from it all, and it’s so relaxing to come here and dig and touch the soil,” she said.
Her teenage sons come frequently to help water the garden and all very much enjoy the Swiss chard, kale, and zucchini Poon grows.
“Everyone shares with each other,” Poon said. “Knowledge, gardening tips, and vegetables; all are passed around. People here are so nice and friendly.”
That sentiment seems universal. People look out for each other’s spaces and there is no shortage of extra hands when someone needs help watering or weeding.
Further up the hill, in the Vista gardens, the plots are larger. More room for vegetables and flowers also means more opportunity for bunnies, field mice, weeds, and slugs to take up residence. At times, one feels like every fresh green bean was won after a tough battle with nature.
Sawako and Chris Kacoroski have a space in Vista 2, as well as a Sunset Walk plot.
“We grow our seeds for quick turnaround at Sunset and use the larger plot at Vista for our root vegetables that require less time and maintenance,” Sawako said.
What’s the easiest thing she’s found to grow?
“Garlic! You can plant a clove of garlic in the ground and it will grow no matter the condition.
Sawako said. “I pull them out of the ground in the late fall and dry them in the garage. We have garlic year-round.”
Michelle Stevens describes herself as “not a skilled gardener.” Looking over her garden space, anyone would disagree. Her lush, colorful lettuce patch is amazing.
“I do have a passion to see plants grow and love to eat and give my veggies to my friends,” Michelle said.
In the Vista gardens, I turned a corner and found a plot so beautiful, precise, healthy, and weed-free that I had to track down the owner. Lynn Huynh couldn’t take credit for it herself. Her parents, Bai and Kim, live with her and she leased the plot as a pastime for them. They are former professional farmers in China and are passing their knowledge on to their grandchildren, Brayden and Kady Huynh, who garden with them.
When asked about the biggest challenge of gardening in Issaquah Highlands, Kim pointed to an end plant somewhat ravaged by bites and chew marks.
“Slugs,” she said.
Long-time residents, Pradeep and Sasmita Sahoo, have had a plot in Vista 2 since it was first built almost 10 years ago. They found that raising a garden pairs well with raising a family.
“Our experience is that kids learn to grow while they are growing,” Pradeep said.
Their delightful daughters, Ananya and Shreya, are a big part of the Sahoo gardening team. Both told me they would definitely plant gardens of their own some day.
Corn is rarely seen in these community gardens, however Pradeep and Sasmita grow it and they grow it well. Combined with the beautiful tomato plants, peppers, and a spectacular tub of potato plants, the Sahoos have mouth-watering vegetables all summer long.
Aside from the many tending hands, I asked: what is your trick for keeping such a healthy and plentiful garden?
“We turn the soil every year and add fresh compost,” Pradeep said. “We used a bit of fish oil fertilizer last year but found we haven’t needed it this year. Plenty of water, much more than you’d think, really helps it stay healthy. We learn new things every year. This year, we’re practicing ‘less is more’ and keeping the garden plants spaced further apart.”
All of the community gardeners I met spoke with passion about their gardening experiences. It becomes less like a pastime for a lot of us, and more like a way of life. Sure, it can be frustrating at times, but the smell of the rich soil and the fresh air seem to be a remedy for many of life’s ails. Even when I wasn’t comfortable going into a grocery store, I would allow myself to visit plant nurseries. As community gardeners, we talked about our love for roaming the outdoor aisles of Squak Mountain Nursery, or the Gray Barn, or all the knowledge one can get from The Grange, among other local places.
As my friend, Pradeep said, “it’s all about seeds, good soil, water, and sun.” But beyond that, my conversations at the garden have made clear that, for many of us, gardening nourishes far beyond the home-grown fruits and vegetables on our plates. The simple act of growing a garden can be spiritually uplifting, physically exhilarating, and soothing to the soul. Ultimately, in our busy lives, during good times and bad times, or in these days of uncertainty, who doesn’t need more of that?
For further information on leasing a community garden plot, visit issaquahhighlands.com/community-garden.
All photos provided by Sheryl Knappenberger, community gardener and Crofton at Village Green Resident.