Alumni Spotlight: Kristen McIvor

Kristen McIvor

Kristen McIvor, brandishing a purple cauliflower.

Forget putting a chicken in every pot, or a car in every backyard. Kristen McIvor has a much grander, greener and more sustainable vision for Tacoma: “I would like there to be a garden in every neighborhood that wants one.”

McIvor, who grew up in Kirkland and Spokane, first got involved in community gardening in Tacoma as a Ph.D student with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). Interested in urban agriculture and reconnecting people to their food supply, she came to SEFS to work with Professor Sally Brown in 2005 and later completed her dissertation in June 2011.

One of her first projects with Brown, though, was to spend a summer in Tacoma with TAGRO, the city’s biosolids program, which worked to protect the environment by transforming sewage into user-friendly products for home gardeners, in addition to supporting local agriculture. And as McIvor learned about biosolids, she cultivated a separate grassroots interest on the side—promoting community gardening in Tacoma.

She discovered plenty of interest in neighborhood gardens, yet not a centralized organization coordinating or promoting them. So McIvor soon helped galvanize local excitement around community gardens, and she was then hired to support them officially when the Tacoma-Pierce County Community Garden Program launched in 2010. No longer a graduate student, she now works full-time as the community garden coordinator.

Proctor Community Garden

Proctor Community Garden in Tacoma

The program doesn’t own or oversee any of the gardens, says McIvor, but they provide training to gardeners, help groups build new gardens, organize community events and educational workshops, and generally support gardens across a broad demographic. “It’s really diverse,” says McIvor. “There’s not one type of garden or gardener, and we support them all.”

Some gardens are the size of a backyard or a few raised beds; another covers seven acres and houses a chicken co-op. More than five languages might be spoken at one location, or have as many as 50 gardeners on site, while others might have only two or three volunteers. Most gardens are divided to some degree into individual plots for personal harvest and consumption, but many grow almost exclusively to donate to local food banks. (Their “Share the Harvest” program was designed specifically to help boost food bank contributions; in its first year, the goal was to donate 4,000 pounds, but they ended up topping 12,000.)

Today, the program is a collaborative effort of the city of Tacoma, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Metro Parks, Pierce County, the Pierce Conservation District and other community groups. For the first two years, about 85 percent of program funding came from the city of Tacoma, and other support has come from the Allen Foundation, or through in-kind donations of office space or products.

Green Thumb

Green Thumb Community Garden

With the strong support of Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland—who has set an ambitious goal of Tacoma eventually having the most gardens per capita in the country—the city kicked off the effort by offering seven pieces of property for garden use (four have since been developed). Other gardens came together through local parks districts, churches, schools and private owners, and the program has quickly taken root. In 2010, there were 26 community gardens in Tacoma and surrounding Pierce County, says McIvor. Now, with the program in year three, there are 54.

Getting to work with these various garden groups and their associated neighborhoods is a huge motivator for McIvor. “They’re really committed to making their neighborhoods better,” she says. “It’s fun to be at that intersection where people are coming together, getting to know each other, seeing the possibilities and deciding on a common vision for their neighborhood. There’s a lot of good energy, and we get to be a part of it and support them.”

Part of that support comes from the city through a partnership with TAGRO, where McIvor spent her initial summer of graduate study. The city program provides its products—such as potting soil from residual biosolids, or a manure substitute to blend into soil—for free to participating gardens. Recycling these sewage byproducts helps close the production loop, making for an extremely efficient and sustainable system.

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Green Thumb Community Garden opening celebration.

So far, McIvor has coordinated this dynamic program without a permanent website, but she’s hoping to have one perhaps within a few weeks. They do have a Facebook page, however, and she’s also hired a second staff person to help ease some of the pressures on time and resources. “We’re finally able to put some better systems in place, so this year should be a lot more smooth—but then we do keep launching more things,” says McIvor. In fact, they have three new gardens in the works, and another four requests. They also now offer an Edible Garden Workshop Series; a demonstration/learning garden that opened in 2011; a fruit tree steward program to help people get certified and take better care of their trees; and this year, a community specialist track within the Master Gardener Program.

A community garden for any neighborhood in Tacoma that wants one? At this rate, doesn’t seem that farfetched anymore. “Our growth has been kind of crazy,” says McIvor. “It’s like a rocket ship I keep expecting to settle into orbit and hang out there, but it keeps going!”

Photos © Kristen McIvor.