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Into the garden with Gene and George—and your neighbors

Two weekends ago, while half the Western world was grounded by the volcano in Iceland, it felt good to be hanging around talking aphids in a community garden in east-central Tucson.

Somebody had brought an urn of coffee and a dozen cinnamon rolls, and as the giant dill plants came down and the hot-weather vegetables went in, both the scale of the endeavor and the relation of human to planet seemed just right.

Similarly pleasant scenes take place most Saturdays and Sundays somewhere in Pima County. Community gardening is exploding here, according to Gene Zonge, administrator of Community Gardens of Tucson, an all-volunteer organization founded 20 years ago by Tucson horticulture rock-star George Brookbank.

The particular meeting I attended—my first—was a combined monthly meeting of the Chaverim and Highland Vista, two of the 11 gardens belonging to CGT. (Other entities around town, including the Community Food Bank, also foster community gardening.) Incredibly, Brookbank himself, now 82, attends these meetings, exuding charm and invaluable advice. (He also keeps up a terrific gardening blog on the CGT website.)

Not just the meetings, but the gardens themselves, are run masterfully by CGT. The association helps neighbors locate usable vacant land and assists them in transforming it into successful garden plots. (The HV garden started up last fall with backhoe work on a patch of city park land that used to grow only puncturevine.) For a $25 refundable plot deposit and $15-a-month dues for water, each gardener gets a 2-foot-deep by 3-foot-wide, 20-foot-long trench through the horrible clay and caliche of the valley floor, an efficient drip-watering system and a ton of detailed, friendly instruction, plus communal comforts like fencing, tools and a toolshed.

Gardeners with startup plots in the community gardens supply soil, seeds and labor. My trench took a weekend of hard, satisfying work and 16 bags of Humboldt County compost to make something reasonable out of the sticky native clay. It was a profitable two days for both Mesquite Valley Growers and for me: I now have caliche-free soil of a depth and quality that before, I could only dream of, and—just a month after first inquiring about a plot—young corn, squash and sunflower plants that look like they dropped in from Iowa.

I've also met a number of neighbors I didn't know before, and become reacquainted with some I haven't seen since the days when our kids were on the swim team together. This is the other thing community gardens produce—living, breathing community, an even more valuable product than fresh chard and broccoli. These gardens offer a satisfying and, forgive me, organic setting in which to connect with neighbors and do things together.

I don't know about other gardens, but both HV and Chaverim are led by energetic young couples with tiny children. They're obviously hip to a basic truth: When your kids are really small, everybody's better off if you give in wholeheartedly to domesticity and find things to do that are compatible with the doings of little children.

Community gardens offer a nearly ideal combination of fresh air, safety, mild recreation and casual socializing to young families—and the cheering sight of these families to the rest of us. Almost every time I've been to the HV garden, there have been parents and kids there tinkering with their crops; a pack of toddlers and preschoolers swirled giddily around the Chaverim garden during our Sunday-morning meeting. Between the dill, the dirt, a toy truck, a low tree branch to swing on and space to run around in, they had a fine time while bothering absolutely no one.

As the kids and parents get to know one another, they're creating a genuine neighborhood, one in which the kids, when they're older, will be able to roam at will. They'll be able to ride their bikes to their friends' houses and spend time there, getting a feel for what other families are like and generally enjoying the sort of self-determination and freedom from perpetual ferrying and fussing that children used to have. And that's a really good thing.

All this, and tomatoes, too.

You can locate community gardens on the Green Pueblo Map at greenpueblomap.org. See Gene Zonge show you how to start a garden in the archives at TucsonWeeklyTV.com.

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