Walking down rows of fresh plants at the Pendleton River Walk Garden, Colleen Sanders and Taylor Smith practically disappear behind chest-high arugula, corn and peas. The kale is also growing like crazy, Sanders said, and it won’t be long before they start planting summer veggies including peppers and eggplant.

Just up the hill, joggers and cyclists wave hello from the Pendleton River Parkway, some of whom never knew the area is home to a lush community garden. For years, the garden fell by the wayside without anyone able to commit the enormous energy to keep it alive. It even got to the point where Sanders, who coordinates the Umatilla County Master Gardener Program for Oregon State University Extension Service, said they were having discussions on whether to give it up for good.

“It’s a glorious, amazing, wonderful thing, but it demands so much of your time,” she said.

Instead, Sanders and Smith have worked together to revitalize the garden with more than a little help from local volunteers. The garden now has six raised beds available to rent, along with a main field where they grow produce for CAPECO to distribute to families. It is located on Southwest Byers Avenue west of the Round-Up Grounds.

While the land itself is owned by the city of Pendleton, CAPECO is the group that pays for water on site and drives the demand for healthy, nutritious food. Sanders said CAPECO wants the community to be active, healthy and food secure, and community gardens are a major asset in fulfilling that mission.

“It’s so important to participate in your food,” she said. “Our food should be alive. Food is a living, organic thing.”

The Pendleton River Walk Garden has been in the community since 2005, Sanders said. It used to be managed by Phil Emert, a master gardener from Hermiston, before he died in 2010. Since then, responsibility for the garden changed hands several times and production has lagged behind.

Recognizing its value and potential, Sanders agreed to take on the garden and began weeding the ground as early as January. Smith, who was recently hired as the Healthy Communities Coordinator for the Umatilla County Health Department, also answered the call after receiving an email asking for help.

“To learn there was a community garden here and that it might be going away is something I wasn’t OK with,” Smith said. “This is a really important piece to a vibrant community.”

Together, the duo organized volunteer days throughout the spring where they planted seeds, organized crop rotations and rebuilt the entire irrigation system. Elmer’s Irrigation & Supplies donated roughly 1,000 feet of irrigation drip tape, Sanders said, which is indicative of the support they’ve received from the very beginning.

“I’m ecstatic,” Sanders said. “This has performed beyond my wildest dreams.”

According to the most recent community health assessment, 71 percent of Umatilla County is overweight or obese. Not only can the garden encourage people to eat healthier, but Sanders and Smith both said gardening restores an intimate connection between people and their food that’s largely gone missing.

“We’ve become such a passive society, where we go to the grocery store and buy produce that’s really far removed from the way it’s been grown,” Sanders said. “We lose sight of the effort and work that goes in to what’s on our dinner plate.”

To help reestablish that relationship between people and their food, Sanders and Smith are hosting a six-week series of free classes known as Seed to Supper. The curriculum, developed by OSU Extension and the Oregon Food Bank, covers all the basics of gardening from planting to harvest. On Sunday, the class focused on mixing and spreading fertilizer while also planting bean sprouts at the garden. Jessica Sou an Erin Zander said they’ve already learned about different tools and planting techniques to start their own gardens at home.

“We’re learning how to feed our families without having to go to the grocery store all the time,” Sou said.

Keeping up with the garden is, admittedly, a huge task, Sanders said. But it’s been worth the long hours, and she’s already looking forward to expanding.

“This is like my child,” she said. “It’s growing up and doing great things, and creating happiness in the world.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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