An unofficial community garden in Salt Lake City was facing a May 1 deadline to take down a mural memorializing a community leader and remove key garden features, but Wasatch Community Gardens is stepping in to help organizers secure funding that could shore up the plot’s future.
In a March letter from the Public Lands Department addressed to garden volunteer Tom King, city leaders had told volunteers at the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden, located in the west-side Fairpark neighborhood, that they would have to remove the mural and temporarily cease planting if volunteers wanted to formalize the site as a community garden once and for all.
The city had also said that the Og-woi collective would have to remove all garden boxes, trellises and the wooden kiosk they’d built at the garden, and halt any other construction projects there. Starting May 1, the city said in the letter, “the Public Lands Department may remove any materials or vegetation from the garden at the Department’s discretion.”
The Og-woi garden has been a polarizing fixture since it started out in 2020 as six young trees planted without permission on a weedy patch of public land near the Jordan River and a neighborhood cul-de-sac. Since then, it has grown to include a community bulletin board; the mural of Pacific Islander community activist Margarita Satini; raised garden beds; a memorial for garden volunteer Hali Vanderburg, who died of cancer in 2021; an orchard; and a pollinator garden.
According to the city’s letter, nearby residents had expressed “ongoing and legitimate concerns” about the “unpermitted origin of the garden; soil quality considerations; and a desire to ensure that any potential use of the site has adequate infrastructure to be a long-term community asset.”
The Public Lands Department encouraged the Og-woi volunteers to submit a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) application. Only after the CIP application is approved and funded “would the Public Lands Department be able to perform public engagement, design, and construction for an appropriate, community-supported, continued use of this public space.”
Mayor Erin Mendenhall brought up the issue of soil quality in another letter to the Og-woi collective, dated April 6, saying that “as someone who has fought against pollution that impacts communities for my entire career, I cannot allow food and medicine to be grown in soil contaminated with lead, arsenic, and benzopyrene.” Benzopyrene comes from certain substances when they are not burned completely, according to the National Cancer Institute.
But the CIP funding would allow for soil remediation at the garden, as well as pay for a city-sourced irrigation line so the garden wouldn’t have to be watered from a private water source.
In their reply to the mayor, the garden collective announced their partnership with Wasatch Community Gardens, which currently manages all of the community gardens in Salt Lake City, according to Luke Allen, who is the community outreach, events and marketing manager with Public Lands. Wasatch Community Gardens will also help Og-woi through the CIP process.
“To ensure that any medicine and food plants are grown in a City-approved manner, we will begin working with [Wasatch Community Gardens] immediately to assure safe gardening practices and increased food access throughout the summer,” the garden collective stated in their letter to the mayor.
Wasatch Community Gardens “has an established history of developing successful community gardens, so this is a significant update,” Allen told The Salt Lake Tribune. The organization manages the Fairpark Community Garden, the Rose Park Community Garden and 15 other plots throughout Salt Lake County.
Georgina Griffith-Yates, executive director of Wasatch Community Gardens, said in an email, “Wasatch Community Gardens is dedicated to empowering people to grow and eat their own food. I am grateful for an opportunity to work through our decadeslong partnership with the city to support important grass-roots gardens like Og-woi.”
“I am optimistic regarding the outlook for Og-woi having a path forward to a partnership with the City via the CIP process, as well as short-term solutions that will potentially allow food growth during 2023,” she continued.
Now, the city is in discussions with Wasatch Community Gardens to “understand options for oversight of Og-woi garden through an existing management agreement with the organization,” Allen said. He added that such an agreement would preserve the mural of Satini, who died of COVID-19 in 2020.
“We feel really good to not have to remove this memorial,” said volunteer Adair Kovac. “It felt really bad having to be faced with that.”
King added that “it’s great that [the city wants] to continue working with our group. And it’s even better that they aren’t going to require the loss of all of the community resource that has made the garden such a beautiful asset to the community.”
As talks progress, “we hope that some amenities at the site will be retained,” Allen said. “The city has no plan or specific date to remove amenities at the garden at this time.”