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In the Garden

A community garden,
the Native American way


I'D HEARD THAT THERE WAS A GARDEN BEHIND THE Potawot Community Village, the new United Indian Health Services facility on Janes Road, but I never got around to visiting it until last week. Marnin Robbins, head gardener of the community garden, invited me to stop by on a sunny Friday afternoon.

The clinic and garden are situated on a 40-acre site that UIHS purchased several years ago. It had been used for farming and ranching since the mid-1800s, but before that the Mad River (called "Potawot" by the Wiyot tribe) flowed through the site, creating a wetland that is also being gradually restored. The clinic, which provides health and dental services to 16,000 American Indian clients, is designed to resemble a traditional village; it's built in a circular shape around a garden of native plants. This interior garden even includes a waterfall, which feeds into a small stream that runs into the wetland. The large gathering room at the entrance is made from recycled wood, and the building's exterior, which looks like weathered redwood, is actually concrete. A fallen redwood tree was used to make forms for the concrete "planks," and it is almost impossible to tell the difference. Everything about the building speaks of tradition and a concern for its impact on the land.

[Ed Mata, one of the Potawot gardeners]

When I arrived at the clinic, there was a farm stand set up outside the front door. Volunteers and staff were doing a brisk business selling produce from the community garden. "This is just one way we teach our clients about nutrition," Robbins explained. "We're very focused on `five [fruits and vegetables] a day' here."

Dietician Leah King told me that the farm stand has given her a chance to teach families about foods they might not try otherwise. "We started getting kohlrabi out of the garden," she said, "and nobody knew what to do with it. So we made a few low-fat dips and had a tasting right here at the farm stand. People took recipes with them, and now we sell out of it." (Kohlrabi, if you've never tried it, tastes a little like cabbage or a mild radish. It's shaped like a turnip, but the bulb grows aboveground. Organic gardeners love it because it's so easy to grow in this climate.)

We walked out to the garden, following a path that meanders through hayfields and the wetland restoration area. "We're planting native plants here," Robbins explained, "but ironically, we have to try to take nutrients out to make it work. This land was pasture for so long that it actually needs to be lower in nutrients for the native grasses to survive and outcompete the clover." The plan is to plant many of the grasses and other plants that American Indians have used to make baskets and mats so that those traditions can take place again. The clinic's philosophy is that human, cultural and environmental health is interconnected. The wetlands and community garden seem to be the physical manifestation of that belief.

Robbins designed the 2 1/2-acre garden himself. I'm not sure I'd even call it a garden; it has the bustle and ambition of a small farm. Rows of strawberries yield enough ripe berries to keep the farm stand stocked, heads of garlic cure in the sun, and green beans are poised at the bottom of trellises, ready to climb. The garden is surrounded by a living fence of berries, and on the other side of that fence, a newly planted orchard offered up the promise of plums, apples and pears in a few more years. Two greenhouses hold tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Just down the hill, an enormous compost pile is covered in straw.

"This garden gives us a way in," Nutrition Services Director Nancy Flynn said. "We can use it to talk about nutrition and exercise. Diabetes prevention and treatment is such a big part of what we do, and the garden lets us address all those issues."

"It wasn't so long ago," King said, "that American Indians around here were pretty self-sufficient when it came to food. We offer canning classes, but this community already knows how to process whole foods. They know how to garden, and many of them have access to land, sun and water. We've started giving out vegetable starts along with food, and it's great to see people planting their own garden -- either a home garden or a community garden. We'd love to make ourselves obsolete, to encourage everyone to have their own garden so ours isn't necessary."

The farm stand isn't the only way that UIHS clients connect with the garden. The staff holds events throughout the year, including a blessing of the garden at the start of the season, a Hawk Walk that focuses on exercise and a banquet to celebrate the harvest. Teens come to a weeklong summer camp to learn about organic gardening, and kids from local schools and Head Start programs visit as well. Produce from the garden also goes into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in which clients receive a weekly or monthly basket of mixed produce from the garden. Staff and interns even visit families in their home and teach them how to cook healthy meals with the food they get.

"We did cut back a little on the chard and the kale," King said. "We're trying to focus more on staple foods: tomatoes, onions, green beans, broccoli -- food that's a little more familiar." (I could sympathize with the predicament: Kale and chard are so easy to grow that you can get carried away.)

I just can't describe how it felt to sit in the shade of the greenhouse and talk about health and nutrition while surrounded by this abundant and well-ordered garden. Last year, the garden produced 20,000 pounds of food for American Indian families. It's a revolutionary idea to tie health care and organic gardening together like that. I've certainly never been to a doctor's office or a hospital that offered fresh strawberries at the entrance. But at the Potawot Community Village, you get a sense that perhaps those ideas are not so new after all.

The garden and the wetlands areas are open to the public, with certain restrictions, during daylight hours. UIHS is a nonprofit and they can use your donations and your time. If you're interested in volunteering at the garden or making a donation, call Marnin Robbins at 826-8476.

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Sun Valley Floral Farms holds an Open House on Sunday, July 20, from noon to 4 p.m. The farm is located in Arcata at 3160 Upper Bay Road. If you've never been, I highly recommend it. You are certain to learn something new about how flowers are grown.

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Tickets are available now for the Wildlife and Native Plant Garden Tour on July 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Redwood Region Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at Strictly for the Birds or Freshwater Farms in Eureka, the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, or Blake's Books in McKinleyville.

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Now that I've exhausted the issue of flower thieves, it has been suggested that I look into plant orphans: those plants that get left on your doorstep without so much as a note. Grace Kerr in our office pointed out that in a way it's the opposite of flower theft. So if you've ever put a plant up for adoption or taken one in, drop me a note at
, or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata 95521.


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