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West Valley City • Andrea Agüin knows a thing or two about gardening and about how its pleasures are often beyond the reach of apartment residents.
So Agüin, who recently received a horticulture degree from Utah State University, helped spearhead development of a community garden this spring at Hillsdale Park, 7.6 acres of greenery among a mix of apartment complexes and single-family homes around 3275 S. 3200 West.
"A garden helps a neighborhood be more unified," Agüin said Wednesday amid rows of boxes filled with thriving vegetable plants from heirloom tomatoes, butternut squash and cinderella pumpkins to chard and corn.
Producing this bounty, she added, provides "reason to enjoy living here."
And, as part of its community-building side effects, Agüin said the garden has brought together 15 neighborhood families who have boxes on Hillsdale Park's formerly little-used tennis courts. Other folks periodically drop in to weed. Fifty attended one group session, she noted.
For Julie Peck-Dabling, who runs Salt Lake County's open space and urban farming program, Agüin's experience is similar to those of people involved in the valley's other 38 community gardens.
"People thought [gardening] was about growing vegetables, but it's about growing our neighborhood, as corny as that sounds," she said. "People get to know and trust each other, despite all kinds of things like age differences. They overcome those."
Agüin's efforts to get Hillsdale's garden going were aided by Wasatch Community Gardens, the county's partner in providing technical advice to fledgling farmers on things like drip-irrigation systems.
"We're getting more and more calls from people wanting to do things like this," said Susan Finlayson, Wasatch Community Gardens' program director. "People want to know where their food comes from."
The rising interest is reflected statistically in the 2012 annual report on urban farming in the county.
This spring's opening of Hillsdale Garden followed last year's debut of Creekside Community Garden at 3475 S. 800 East. All 36 of its garden plots were filled in its inaugural year, six by refugee families. Garden volunteers put in 710 hours of free labor, Peck-Dabling said.
Two gardens established in 2011 in Magna and at Harmony Park, 3700 S. Main St. also are thriving.
After starting with six gardeners, Magna's crew of regular tillers grew to 20 last year, including two people in wheelchairs who worked raised vegetable beds. Peck-Dabling said volunteers spent 550 hours at the garden.
At Harmony Park, she noted, refugee families had five of the 33 available plots. There also were six communal beds, one planted by neighborhood children and another available for picking by the community.
The county's three commercial farms also did well in 2012, the annual report said, collectively yielding more than 100,000 pounds of food.
About half came from Bell Organic Gardens in Draper. Some 350 households helped grow its produce, the report said, adding that the farm was toured by scouts and school groups, used "beneficial" insects rather than pesticides to control "non-beneficial insects," and converted the operation to drip irrigation, cutting water use by 90 percent.
In addition, the farm donated surplus produce to the AIDS Food Pantry.
Tagge's Farm, Peck-Dabling noted, hired local teens to help produce 50 half bushels of tomatoes, 36,000 pounds of cantaloupe and more than 10,000 pounds of melon.
Cottage Green Farms grew 84 varieties of produce on four acres at Wheadon Park in Draper. That translated into almost 12,000 pounds of food, some of which was donated to the Christmas Box House, a rehabilitation program and food banks, the report said.
Other 2012 highlights:
• New Roots of Utah, a group that works with refugees, supported 154 families in three urban-farming programs at a farm at 3100 S. Lester St., through community garden plots for 104 families and 30 porch gardens for people living in a South Salt Lake apartment complex.
• The county's jail horticulture program, which involves the sheriff's office and Utah State University's Extension Office, raised more than two tons of produce, donating 700 pounds to Utah Food Bank. Another 600 pumpkins were delivered to Hartvigsen School for children with disabilities and the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind.
• 40 inmates received "Excellence in Gardening" certificates from USU.
Commercial farming, urban agriculture, community gardens • Julie Peck-Dabling, Salt Lake County Open Space & Urban Farming Program director, firstname.lastname@example.org, 385-468-1811
Biofuel Feedstock Program • Dallas Hanks, director of agronomic and woody biofuels, Utah State University, email@example.com, 801-468-3184
Jail Horticulture Program • Katie Wagner, USU Extension Service, firstname.lastname@example.org, 385-468-4826
Sustainability Garden • Pete Kuennemann, County Health Department specialist, email@example.com, 385-468-3883