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The City Journals

Local church puts the ‘community’ in community gardening

Mar 08, 2021 10:29AM ● By Josh Wood

Residents can tend their own plot in the SOUL Garden on Vine Street. (Photo courtesy Marshall Smith)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

A local church has added some SOUL to community gardening. For over 20 years, Cottonwood Presbyterian Church has hosted a space called the SOUL Garden where residents, whether members of the church or not, can take care of a plot in their spacious community garden. The 2.8-acre space has over 50 plots that people can tend as part of a thriving community effort.

The SOUL (Stewardship on Urban Land) Community Garden is located behind Cottonwood Presbyterian Church at 1580 Vine Street. For a one-time nominal fee, residents can sign up for a plot about 12 foot by 24 foot and grow whatever produce they like. Volunteer gardeners, including Steve Sands and Marshall Smith, are always around to lend a hand and offer expert advice.

“We’ve got in the neighborhood of 54 plots, and only about 13 are used by members of the church,” Sands said. “It’s truly a neighborhood thing.”

The SOUL Garden offers a communal experience for its participants. Its coordinators provide gardening classes, community events like Easter egg hunts, and host monthly work days for tackling garden-wide maintenance projects. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the church has used the garden area for socially distanced outdoor Sunday services during warmer months.

“The gardens are larger than any other garden I know of,” Smith said. “They’re real gardens.”

Gardeners are asked to donate 20% of the produce they grow, which is sold to raise money for charity. Produce that does not sell is also donated to charity. The garden regularly donates to the Utah Food Bank and a nearby women’s shelter. Sands’ wife often takes the lead on sales, which have no list prices. Customers pay what they feel the produce is worth.

Demand for garden plots has grown as fast as the vegetables. One of the challenges its organizers face is having enough open plots for new applicants. “It was originally a small garden, and Steve and I expanded the whole thing,” Smith said. That growth has led to another challenge in the form of water pressure. Access to water has limited the garden to its current number of plots.

Gardeners fortunate enough to have a plot in the space can partake of communal portions of the garden, like a fruit orchard and plots of raspberries and asparagus. Gardeners also enjoy seeing others tend their gardens on a regular basis and get to know their neighbors.

They are also likely to see Sands and Smith, who offer help and advice in addition to tending their own plots. Smith is a master gardener who has dedicated countless hours of work on the SOUL Garden over the years. When surveying the garden, he will point out new features, things that need to be fixed, as well as much-appreciated donations of mulch and supplies. He will often wave to a neighbor or friend passing by on the Murray Canal Trail, which runs behind the garden.

Sands and Smith walked through the gardens during the winter offseason noting its features, including grapes that one member used to make wine. They can quickly name the owner of each garden, what they like to grow, and how they have modified the space to make it their own. Both Sands and Smith sound like proud uncles when talking about the gardeners in their community.

Children also play a key role in the SOUL Garden. Students from nearby Woodstock Elementary tend two large plots and enjoy class trips to the garden to plant and maintain it during the school year. Families volunteer to tend the school’s plot during the summer break.

“It’s a great introduction to gardening for a lot these kids,” Sands said.

The garden is open to visitors, even if they don’t have a garden plot of their own. The space offers straight wide paths for wandering between plots and two pergolas with outdoor seating. The SOUL Garden also features a meditation space in the form of a prayer labyrinth, one of the relatively few registered labyrinths in Utah.

While garden plots can be hard to get, anyone interested in applying for one can do so through Cottonwood Presbyterian Church. With planting season around the corner, Sands and Smith will be there to lend a helping hand or to offer some pleasant conversation.

“I regard it as a terrific addition to the community,” Smith said.