White Mountain Community Garden

By Caroline Bloomfield | August 29, 2022
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by Caroline Bloomfield
August 29, 2022

In 2010, a group of master gardeners and enthusiastic volunteers embarked on making a dream come true: create a community garden in Show Low, Arizona. The group negotiated a lease with Navajo County for a 1.72 acre lot in the heart of Show Low. They also received access to water from the city and raised some startup money from a women’s club. This was the beginning of White Mountain Community Garden, the first and only community garden in Navajo County with the mission goal of “education.” 

Show Low is located in Northeastern Arizona on the Mogollon Rim, a geologic escarpment with vertical cliffs at 8,000 feet in elevation. The Mogollon Rim runs from central Arizona to the New Mexico border. 

Show Low’s elevation is 6,345 feet (1,934 m) and enjoys four seasons which is a characteristic of Arizona that many people miss. The area is a combination of high desert and pine trees surrounded by the Sitgreaves National Forest. The White Mountain Range to the east, tops off at 11,400 feet on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Show Low is also situated within the “Springerville Volcanic Field” which covers 1,200 square miles and includes 405 dormant volcanoes, providing gardeners with an assortment of lava, granite, sandstone and limestone rocks embedded in sand, clay and silt.

Gardeners in the White Mountains definitely have their geologic challenges and they’re also saddled with a legendary name based on a Seven-Up card game. In 1870, two ranching partners could not divide a 100,000-acre ranch between themselves and decided to gamble on it. The winner drew the deuce of clubs, showed the lowest card in the deck, which is now the name of Show Low’s main street.

Membership and Scholarship

HEALP (Healthy Eating And Living Participation) was created in 2013 to provide gardening experience for people who work and/or do not have gardening space at home. Members volunteer to work in the community part of the garden to plant, maintain and harvest produce as it’s available. WMCG was the first community garden in Arizona to provide this kind of project for gardeners. There are 3 offerings for gardeners: inground plots and raised beds to rent or work in the HEALP gardens.

WMCG also offers scholarships to people who have a passion for gardening but need financial assistance to cover the $40 membership fee. An application is required with a letter of intent to work at the garden for one year and participate in the HEALP program. They have given a number of scholarships to students, housewives and retired persons. Scholarships are also offered to veterans and special needs individuals. 

Tenacity

Although the property is flat with full, all-day sun, developing the garden was initially a challenge because of occasional flooding from an overflowing irrigation ditch that bordered the perimeter, and livestock tracking through and eating crops. The garden is also in a flood plain due to a river that ran across the property hundreds of years ago, until developers and city planners diverted it to a manmade lake a few miles away. This explains the garden’s microclimate with temperatures 5 degrees lower than the surrounding neighborhood.

In 2014, a couple of gardeners received a grant to build a high tunnel or hoop house to extend the growing season. Soon after, WMCG received a HAPI (Healthy Arizona Policy Initiative) grant to grade the land, purchase raised beds, and build fencing around the garden. The garden has also obtained various grants to build and obtain more raised beds to accommodate senior members and members with disabilities.

Grants and Support

Michele Sgambelluri is the current president of the board and has successfully been awarded several grants for the garden: in 2021 from the USDA Forest Service (Community Challenge Grant) and the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. These grants, respectively, focused on educating the community about the importance of urban forestry and developing ornamental gardens of native plants, pollinator plants and plants that are both ornamental and edible. The ornamental gardens, Navajo County Ornamental Gardens, was additionally awarded a maintenance grant from the Navajo County Board of Supervisors and will be open to the public beginning this growing season. Michele plans to share information from our organization at their Navajo County Ornamental Gardens. In 2020 and 2021 WMCG was the recipient of an Environmental Protection Grant from Unisource Energy Services. Last, but not least, WMCG was a 2021 recipient of a Gardening Know How sponsorship.

Pandemic Adjustments

Despite the COVID-19 lockdowns, the state designated WMCG as “agricultural,” and the garden was allowed to stay open. While many members chose not to participate, Board members and hearty souls continued to have meetings outdoors with social distancing considerations. Conducting fundraising activities was out of the question and the garden suffered a loss of income. 

Last year however, WMCG held a successful Garden/Farm Tours event (previously called the Garden Expo) as their fall fund raiser. This year, plans will feature two fund raisers in the spring and a more expansive fall event to include expert speakers. The garden is back to providing educational opportunity for their members and the community.

Teamwork

Vegetable starts are donated by volunteers around mid-March each year; but in 2020, the garden suffered a great loss when an accidental fire occurred in the high tunnel exposing newly planted tomatoes to freezing temperatures. New sets had to be planted again. It took five people two days to get the job done. In 2021, as the fear of COVID-19 became less of a threat, 30 people showed up to plant 95 tomato plants in an hour and a half.

Members have made other contributions to facilitate planting. One member built a special device that punches planting holes for garlic and onion sets. Two devices punch 16 holes to the specific depth for easy planting.

All harvests go to members first and extra produce is given to families or veterans’ groups who need it. There is no food waste at the garden.

Children’s Garden

In 2018 and 2019, the garden held summer classes for a Junior Master Gardener Program with partial sponsorship from the Navajo County Extension Office. The program was open to children 6-12 on Saturday mornings in July. The classes were full and the children learned all aspects of gardening from watching seeds sprout, hunting and identifying insect pests, helping to plant and water.

One of the students from the program, Haillie Enders, continued to work at the garden with her grandmother, and last year at the age of 13, she managed the Children’s Garden. She taught a small group of children how to plant seeds, how to maintain the raised beds and do a lot of weeding.

WMCG has always been open to local schools with classes for special needs students, and has provided raised beds for the children to tend to their gardens. WMCG is a partner with Show Low Public Library to provide classes for young children during the summer months. The program has been very popular as has the Seed Library initiated by WMCG to share seeds with the public. The idea is to provide seeds to a grower, who grows crops and brings back seeds saved from those crops to replenish the seed library. 

Gardening Know How Sponsorship Help

Back in 2018, Michele and volunteers built 3 raised beds for about a thousand dollars. Last year when they shopped for wood to build new beds, the price had risen to three times that amount. With typical ingenuity, and a little help from Gardening Know How, the garden members went to two local ranch supply stores and purchased three livestock water troughs. With a lot of effort and uncooperative weather, they finally got all three filled and are currently doing fall planting. 

One container bed that was weeded last fall revealed a healthy volunteer ground cherry plant that appeared out of nowhere. Just a gift from the universe for some hard-working gardeners who love what they do.

Visit White Mountain Community Garden on their website and Facebook page.

Every year, Gardening Know How awards $1,000 to 20 different, hand-picked garden projects across the United States and Canada. If your community or school garden has a growing, unmet need for more soil, seeds, fertilizers, building materials, or even just help getting the word out about your program, we’re ready and willing to help you meet those needs. As community gardens and school gardening programs spring up all over, we’re happy to do our part to help.

Interested in learning more about school or community gardens? Visit our Community Garden for Everyone page today.

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  • Valerie
    Comment added September 7, 2022Reply

    It's wonderful to know there is support for people who want to make a difference in their community.

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