Volunteers plant seeds for urban harvest
By Cari Hachmann, photo by Kyle Weismann-Yee
On a recent chilly morning, seeds were planted in Portland’s first urban garden organized solely by communities of color.
Since the garden’s kick-off earlier this year, leaders of the Urban League of Portland and African Women’s Coalition, along with community volunteers, neighbors, and families, are transforming a plot of land for future harvests.
The response comes as local leaders are anxious to promote health, wellness, and cultural enrichment in the African and African American communities.
“Community members expressed a strong desire to have increased gardening space, affordable, culturally relevant fruits and vegetables, and to engage in community gardening as a means to decrease social isolation,” said Charlene McGee, one of the organizers of the Urban Harvest Garden who also serves as board president of the African American Women’s Coalition.
Work began on the once vacant lot of 741 N. Beech St. and Albina Avenue in February. Owned for over a decade by the local Urban League, the space was first covered with cardboard, dug up, re-soiled, and prepped for spring planting. This month, community members gathered to resume hammering, shoveling, and planting.
“We want to give people a chance to garden, especially those who wouldn’t normally be able to,” said Kyle Weismann-Yee, a communication associate for the Urban League. “On a tight-budget, it’s hard to buy locally grown, organic foods at the supermarket.”
The goal is to plant healthy, fresh foods that are favorites to the local African American and immigrant African populations. The space should provide sufficient room for up to 30 families to plant and harvest their produce.
On the recent planting day, volunteers young and old dressed to get dirty and shoveled dark, rich soil atop raised garden beds and rows of earth. Community elders helped young ones drop seeds of baby green lettuce, sweet onions, tomatoes, collard greens, sweet potatoes, okra, leek, chard, and more.
“We want the community to utilize this plot, especially African-American people, said Inger McDowell, head of the diversity and civic leadership program of Urban League of Portland.
McDowell continued, “It is important that we make it intergenerational, a common space for youth and elders to build toward something.”
Mapping out designs for the garden, including a wooden fence and a structure to hold six giant rain barrels to collect water for irrigation, was Ty Schwoeffermann, the Portland Urban League’s health equity organizer, who learned to garden from his Caribbean mother.
“She was around plants her whole life, so she taught me a lot and had us working in the garden,” he said. Schwoeffermann also has experience from a former job at a molecular biology lab in Eugene where he learned the under workings of growing corn.
Just as important as the passing of cultural values and information from one generation to the next, is the principle of recycling and regeneration.
Volunteers tore apart recycled crates donated by the Rebuilding Center for the wooden planks that would make the fence.
Though some funding was made possible through the partnership of the Urban League of Portland and the African Women’s Coalition, most of the materials needed for the project were donated or recycled.
The project received tools, tips, and information about gardening from the Urban Farm Store, shed equipment from Northeast Tool Shed, and bark dust from the city’s forestry department.