Interview with South Sound Master Gardener, Sue Ford

Tacoma Community Garden

Dirty girls: These ladies get down and dirty with the garden greens in Tacoma, Washington.

How did you come to be involved in community gardening in the South Sound?

I personally wanted to have a retirement activity, and I drive/walk by the gardens all the time so I contacted Metro Parks.  I originally had Proctor as my 3rd (not first) choice and started there.   Then I enrolled in the 2013 Master Gardener, Community Garden Specialist Class.

How long have you been involved in the community gardening, or in the Harvest Pierce County Program?

2011 is when I got my first ‘seasonal’ plot at Proctor

What do you think is so great about Harvest Pierce County, both for individuals and for communities?

Connection!  Our society is really fragmented by all the roles we must assume (worker, parent, etc).  The gardens give you an outlet for a role you want to have – for me the experimental hippie retiree!  I connect with fellow gardeners in my little garden, at other gardens and workshops, with garden communities I visit or seek out online, and neighbors who just walk by and visit our little community garden.

What’s the secret to a great raised/box garden? Are there any resources that you can recommend to create one?

Personally, I am a fan of Square Foot Gardening. This is a form of raised bed gardening that Mel Bartholomew has developed.  He ‘grids’ out 1 foot areas for specific plants and uses a homemade light soil mixture.  It particularly involves straight lines ( he was an engineer) and that is what I like.  Plus his instructions are so simple anyone can do it anywhere. Here is his website:

I’ve read that community gardens build stronger, safer communities by connecting citizens to each other and to their local food system. Can you speak to how these gardens provide communities with these benefits?

As part of my Master Gardener volunteer commitment, I work with 3 school/child care center gardens.  Children infrequently have no clue where food comes from other than a package.  Going out into the garden to play in the soil, plant, water and pick – helps children make that connection between their efforts and the food they get to eat or the flowers that dress their tables at lunch time.  Same goes for the adult staff members, volunteers and parents.

This is kind of an off-the-wall question, but what kind of workout do you think a day of gardening can provide to the health conscious among our readers? Is it comparable to any particular kind of workout that you might know of?

This question cracks me up, but I have to tell you I do count this J  In my efforts to be more ‘healthful’ I use the My Plate tracker for both food and exercise.  According to their website (so not me making this up!)  One hour of general gardening is worth 323 calories of effort! Here is the text from the site on that figure calculation: General gardening activities may include lifting garden products and equipment, arranging plants, pruning, potting and turning soil. The weight of the items you carry or equipment you use can provide resistance as you move, and the constant activity can turn into a low to medium calorie- burning workout.

Read more:

So I feel pretty good about that cookie after a morning of watering and weed pulling!

What’s a common crop for community gardens? Is anything off-limits?

Lettuce, we have a lot of fruit (raspberries & strawberries), tomatoes and kale.  We encourage people who want to grow ‘wandering roots’ like mint to place it in pots.  That is because we have a wild crop of horse radish throughout Proctor.

Still have not approved pot growing…yet.

How are community gardens connected to Glean and Castings and Harvest Pierce County, exactly?  I am sort of inundated with all of the information I’ve read so far, so I hope that you can help clear this up for me a little bit.

My understanding is that the community garden system is one arm under the HPC umbrella along with the others such as the Gleaning Project.   Community gardens really went crazy when Michelle Obama tore up a portion of the White House lawn for a garden and our mayor Marilyn Strickland encouraged any and all vacant land to turn into a garden.  This coupled with the influx of immigrants who are used to communal garden areas and BAM they are everywhere!  The Harvest Pierce County agency has done a phenomenal job of finding all of us and coordinating efforts so we don’t have a group of ‘feudal’ organizations out there duplicating services.  Which means us gardeners can garden, not worry about the bureaucracy of it all.

Let’s say one wants to take part in a community garden. What steps should they take to get involved in a community garden nearest them? Is there a waiting list to get on, or should those interested get in touch with a community garden liaison? Walk me through the process, if you can.

1)      Go out and physically walk through some gardens, get a ‘feel’ for the ambiance in the garden before you decide you want to be part of it. If you have trouble bending, do they have raised boxes?  Do you have any other limitations and does this garden have gardening areas you can use? Do the people in this garden socialize and do you want to be part of that? Is there a volunteer requirement, like service hours or food bank donations, can you meet it?

2)      Go back to the garden on a ‘bad’ day and think if I sign up – I have to take care of this no matter the weather – can you do it or should you plant something in a container at home

3)      Look closely, why do I want to garden?  My initial investment might be a bit of cash can I do it?  Do I own a pair of boots or gloves?  Should I find a friend who has a garden and help out to see if I really like it?

4)      Think about what you eat or like – begin to think about seeds and plants.  Learn what will grow here in the NW maritime region.  Yes, you can get tired of radishes when you plan the entire packet!

5)      Look at your calendar, will you be around in the summer to water, weed and harvest?  If you go on a vacation – who do you have to do those things for you?

6)      Now – look at the garden site, do they have a contact?  Then contact that name, number or email.  Be prepared to wait – if there is a waiting list it could be a year or two before you get a place to garden.  Look at the community garden website, and visit a couple more gardens – selecting a 2nd and 3rd choice, too. NOTE this is the posted one, but not the most current.

7)      While you are waiting, get prepared and inspired!  Go to garage sales to get tools and garden art.  Visit garden shops and check out seeds, send away for free seed catalogs.  Check out the free garden classes with HPC, the city and the county – take them and learn before you begin to dig

8)      When you get your plot – reach out to your neighboring gardeners – that is the fun part!

I am interested in some metrics as to how community gardens have given back, how many hours of community service participants have invested, testimonials from program participants, some facts about emissions or evidence of the benefits of climate control, or statistics about how these gardens have improved the local economy.

See the thesis I attached.

Personally, I attended a training session at a local food bank – that was great information I learned.  Additionally I teach clinical nursing and we spent a day harvesting kale, doing blood pressure checks, teaching about healthy food choices and helping prep and pass out food.  That I think was one of the best educational experiences for those students – pics attached.

Proctor volunteers give back

Homegrown and from the heart: Proctor gardeners donate locally grown produce to those in need.

It looks as if there are 66 community gardens in Pierce County. Do they each have a wait-list, or do you know if there are several that have plots open right now?

I know that the Proctor garden in the middle of the north end of Tacoma is very popular.  We have 52 plots, and are building about 10 -15 raised beds.  We are at capacity with a waitlist of about 25 currently.  I anticipate we will see more on the wait list as people get out in the spring and begin to think about gardening.

It looks as if those who are interested in community gardening can find a quiet place to garden by themselves, or can visit the garden for company and socialization. It also looks like the community gardens hold courses and community gatherings, too. Can you tell me just a little bit about any of these aspects of community gardening?

I personally am involved in the educational piece in other gardens in town; yet selfishly keep my involvement at Proctor to the socialization and gardening aspect.  I certainly want to do good for the community, but also myself – so that is what my main focus is at Proctor – working the dirt.  Being on the leadership team of this garden, we have a newsletter that goes out and we post educational activities happening in town and the county so people can learn.  Incidentally, I am growing flowers this year from my son’s wedding in August.  So that is how I keep it fun!

I read that community gardens began in the South Sound in 2010, and have grown three fold since then. Why do you think that is?

See my note about our mayor

The City of Tacoma became involved in community gardens to ensure their longevity. I imagine that this gave the garden communities a degree of structure that made the program that much more attractive and safe. Would you say that that had any part in the growth in the community garden popularity?

Hummm, I don’t think it was for longevity, but for politician popularity.  When we re-elect it will be interesting to see if it stays in popularity.  If we have gained a degree of self-sufficiency that could happen.  Because a number of gardens are located on vacant space, my pessimistic sense says if the land is needed for something else, the garden will go.

I watched a video about Tagro, a Tacoma-made soil-amendment that is free for Tacoma community gardeners. Is there anything that you can tell me about Tagro that our readers might be interested to know? For example, I believe I read that the program diverts 13,000 truckloads of waste from Washington’s landfills each year.

People are funny about poop!  Seems they like to use it from horses or chickens but frown on its use if it comes from humans.  I don’t think people really understand that to get mass quantities of horse and chicken poop, you don’t gather it out in a field.  No, it comes from places where there are large quantities of animals – like poultry farms where birds sit on roosts eating and pooping, or slaughter houses where you have large groups of animals contained.  I think people would think twice about manure use if they took the time to critically think about it.

That is what TAGRO is all about – completing that circle of food consumption. We plant the seeds, harvest the produce, eat the food, glean the nutrition and then put the waste product right back in the soil to start the process all over.  Incidentally when we worry about chemicals, drugs, etc from people waste – the majority of that is filtered in our kidneys, not our bowels – so it is going into the general water system not the TAGRO ingredient list anyway.

Do you have any gardening tips for our readers that are new to the joys of gardening in the Pacific Northwest? For instance, I hail from the desert, and each spring I marvel at the flora. Just this week, I bought a passel of crocuses and am so weirdly elated every time I see activity in the buds. Gardening in the NW was difficult for me to grasp, though–I was used to hardy plants, perennials that seemed to always be in bloom. I didn’t understand perennials at all when I first got here. (In fact, I’m not sure that I do now.) What are a few gardening basics for the remedial but eager gardeners among us?

Ha, here in the Northwest consider EVERYTHING an annual until proven otherwise!  Play and experiment – that is the rule.  I am going to plant a “Ketchup and Fries” plant this year – it is a tomato grafted onto a potato!

There will always be food in the grocery store, so if you don’t do something successful, go buy it.  Think about what you eat, can it grow locally (no pineapples just ain’t ever going to make it here)?  Look at the number of days it takes to grow on the packet and think about what day it is – will we have enough sun to grow those tomatoes?  Starting a pumpkin plant on Oct. 1st won’t give you a Halloween Jack O’Lantern. Start small – grow some radishes in a small container, or put a couple of lettuce seeds in a pot in the sunny window.  If it does not work, no worries – just plant something else.  Gardening – it is one of the best examples of experiential learning around!

Is there anything that I neglected to ask? If so, please include that info below. 😉

The crop I am most proud of…… Cascade hops (see photo), first Black IPA is in the cask right now!

Cascade Hops

Cascade Hops are among the bountiful harvest at the Proctor Garden in Tacoma.

Have a question for this Proctor-area Tacoma gardener? Reach out to her at


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