Novel Eats: First, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in gardening?
Stephanie Seliga: I became interested in gardening/farming when I was a philosophy major at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. Through my work with the Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership, we were dismantling racism in South Bend, Indiana. We brought Francis Moore Lappé to town and a light went on in my mind, “Oh… the garden… the great equalizer… everyone deserves good food. We can change the world with this.”
NE: How did The Just Garden Project get started? What inspired it?
SS: The Just Garden Project began in 2010 as Spring into Bed, a Seattle-wide garden build day and celebration. I had worked for the Kitchen Garden Project in Olympia, WA from 2006-2008. I was unemployed and wanting something to do. I thought about doing a small garden celebration in my neighborhood, and my husband, Michael Seliga of Cascadian Edible Landscapes said, “No, it needs to be much bigger”. He sent out an e-mail to all the local food systems and we began to organize the celebration. Through community meetings and process we discovered what was important about gardening in Seattle. People were very adamant about a food justice element. That year we built 10 free gardens for low income families and organized volunteers throughout the city. Our success grew and in October Seattle Tilth agreed to take the Just Garden Project on as a fiscally-sponsored project.
NE: From your perspective, what is the importance of gardening?
SS: I believe that being in relationship with our food is a human right. Gardening connects us to the earth, the seasons, and our deep connection to each other. A garden can be a healing place, it feeds our families and it connects us with our ancestors and an older way of doing things. To me everything you need to know about life is in the garden. In this modern time it is also a low-cost way to increase the amount of healthy/organic vegetables in a household. A garden for a low-income family is self-sufficiency and hope.
NE: Right now this project is only in King County in Washington, but do you have plans to make this go beyond the Seattle area and Washington?
SS: I would say we have dreams. This is our first year, so we are really focused on getting our systems in order and developing a powerful program that deeply serves Seattle and King County. From this foundation, we hope to implement programs throughout the country.
NE: How many people have you helped so far? How many gardens have you planted?
SS: We have built 43 gardens in the last two years. These gardens have fed over 1,250 people.
NE: Do you know how much money people have saved by having their own gardens?
SS: We don’t know but the estimate is that folks can grow between $400 and $650 worth of food in one JGP garden so we estimate between $17,000 and $31,000 worth of produce has been produced.
NE: Do you teach people how to cultivate their own gardens after they are planted?
SS: We have a mentor program where mentors work one on one with gardeners for the growing season. All first-year gardeners receive four rounds of seasonally-appropriate plant starts. At the end of the growing season we offer a compost workshop during our Fall into Bed celebration and a Resting and Planning workshop for the winter season.
NE: Do you do any other events or workshops when planting gardens might not be an option?
SS: We do lots of events and workshops. We build gardens throughout the spring, support the garden/mentor relationship throughout the summer, and celebrate and clean during the fall. We had a Compost workshop on the 16th, and a Resting and Planning workshop will happen in October. We also do a workshop to begin the mentor-gardener relationship and a how to build a raised bed garden workshop with our champions in the spring.
NE: What is your dream for The Just Garden Project?
SS: The project grew out of the idea that everything is already perfect, so let’s celebrate and grow that perfection. This project belongs to the people who are involved. If we are sure that we are feeding the people faith, love, hope and charity, we will continue to do this work in a good way. That the next generations of Americans will know how to grow their own food, soil and communities in a good way. Perhaps the role of the Just Garden Project at that time will be just to throw the parties. At this time we have only built raised beds. In the future I see our gardening program offering that as well as a compost element. Eventually I see us moving into healing urban soils and how to turn your neighborhood/city block into a self-sustained and sustaining food eco-system. Really the sky is the limit and it will be our communities that determine the scope of our work.
NE: How can people become involved?
SS: We have events posted on our website, we are always looking for volunteers. Right now we are looking for an administrative intern, event coordinating interns and more. The way we say it is, if you have a skill and you think it would benefit our project, send me an e-mail and we will work to find a way to use your skill to build our programs in a good way.
NE: Is there anything else you want to share?
SS: In two years the Just Garden Project has built over 40 gardens for low-income families and communities in King County. These gardens are in homes, churches, community centers, food banks and more. Food from these gardens has fed over 1,200 people. This has largely been done though community donation and volunteer efforts. The Just Garden Project exists because our community wants it to exist.
Thank you so much to Stephanie and the Just Garden Project for sharing their story. To learn more, visit www.justgarden.org and be sure to like them on Facebook. If you would like to make a donation to help build a garden for someone, visit their Donate page.
Do you have any similar organizations doing something like this in your community?
All images courtesty of Charity Burggraaf, www.charitylynne.com.