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June 20th, 2008
Community garden dating back to WWII thrives in San Marcos

Boone Graham had a personal epiphany when he tasted a fresh carrot grown by his friend Gary at San Marcos’ community garden.”It was delicious, just like eating a carrot for the first time,” he said.

“I think organic gardening is on a lot of people’s minds,” added Graham. “They realize that there is a problem with the way we eat food now. I try to get people to come check out the garden and taste fresh food for the first time; there’s nothing like it. That’s what happened to me, and it’s been a positive thing in my life.”

The ultimate prize for cultivating your own food is eating that organic home-grown carrot, tomato or zucchini at its very prime, the freshest and most nutritious it could possibly be. Many people do not consider the journey of the produce they buy in local grocery stores, Graham said, adding that the main way people in San Marcos get their food is by trucking it in and buying it in a bag.

Graham was first walked through the garden by Ben Harnden, and calls the introduction a life-changing experience.

Harnden, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in plant ecology at Texas State University and is a science teacher at Churchill Middle School in New Braunfels, is in his first year as coordinator of the San Marcos community garden.

The garden started as a victory garden during World War II. Victory gardens were created on the American homefront to assist with the war effort by promoting community sustainability so more resources could be sent to troops. However, a microfilm study of the San Marcos Record, which was then printed only on Fridays, from 1941 to 1945 did not reveal when this victory garden was started.

The garden is on city property, just off Riverside Drive and sandwiched between St. John’s Catholic Church and a set of railroad tracks, yet the church has a long-term lease on the property and has jurisdiction over what happens on the land.

Harnden said the garden is still in the process of becoming a true community place.

“It has always existed, but just has not had a lot of community interaction. You basically have to know somebody to know that this place exists,” he said. The garden does not advertise, and has thrived for decades by word of mouth.

Harnden explained what is perhaps the grandest benefit of a community garden: “There are definitely dreams of spreading localized urban agriculture all over the town. But the way it is happening now is we are helping people feel comfortable gardening on their own, and they take it back to their homes. We have quite a few gardeners who have been at the community garden for a year or two, and they soon begin to garden on their own, and leave their plot at the garden for somebody else to use. It is almost like a gardening training process.”

Harnden said that historically, the garden did not enjoy a regular waiting list and typically had open plots. The inevitable 10 to 15 plots out of 35 are vacant each year, but this spring growing season there is a considerable queue.

“There could have been times in the past when there was a waiting list, but when I showed up there were a bunch of empty spots,” Harnden, who has been gardening at the community garden for two and a half years, said. “Sometimes there would be short waiting lists, but people would drop out quickly,” and the list would disappear.

He said determining how many people are actively gardening at the community garden is difficult. “There could be one name on our roster, but sometimes all five people in the family take turns watering and cultivating.”

There are some gardeners who have lost interest in their plots, so expect some plots to be opening soon, he said. (Folks on the waiting list get first dibs, of course.) Gardeners who have lost interest in their plots are encouraged to plant a cover crop to prepare the soil for the next growing season.

Most of the garden’s 35 plots have four beds in them. According to Harnden, one bed should be used in a particular fashion: it should be fallow, but “we don’t believe in the soil being truly fallow, and instead encourage gardeners to plant cover crops to help put nitrogen back in the soil.”

Some plots are shared. Graham and friend Dieter Giesler share one plot, and their current harvest includes potatoes, tomatoes, dill and banana peppers. They also just planted bean varieties and edamame, or soy beans, in one bed, and black-eyed peas for cover crop in another.

“We’re just beginning to learn,” Graham said.

Both men are local musicians – Graham is the guitarist for Boonesboro and Giesler also plays guitar for Falcon Buddies – and Graham, who sometimes eats his comestibles while gardening, often inserts plugs in between songs about how satisfying eating truly fresh food is and what a rewarding experience growing his own vegetables has been.

Graham finds an encouraging similarity between the worlds of music and gardening: both are best done and most appreciated as community efforts.

“Whether it is sending vibrations through the air or moving dirt and water, it is something that you get more of a benefit from as a common experience. The idea that all of the food that we grow has been cultivated by humans for thousands and thousands of years, just as music has been passed down like this… it’s something I’m just getting turned on to,” he said.

Graham and Giesler want to eventually include fresh produce as an item for purchase at their respective merchandise tables at shows.

“I agree with Boone’s philosophy about gardens feeding bands, bands feeding gardens — the dual partnership, symbiotic relationship between musicians and gardening,” Giesler said. “It is something to be passionate about. It is an activity that has a lot of benefits, and just like anything else there will be frustrations. I do it for sustainability. I think people will realize that a seed and the climate and environment can produce such wonderful things.”

Six decades after the garden’s inception, the process of solidifying rules and regulations for gardeners has finally begun: a lease agreement and a codified rubric are in the works. In the past, gardening rules have been loose and unenforced and traveled by word of mouth with no formal contract. The main, uncompromisable rules are simple: there will be no use of fertilizers that are petrochemical-based, and there will be no use of inorganic pesticides.

Gardeners also pay $20 for requisite annual dues. “When springtime comes everybody wants to start a garden, and that is when people start calling up, ready to pay their yearly dues,” Harnden said.

Money in the bank is imperative for the garden to prosper. Water, second only to soil in the equation of organic gardening, comes from a well on the property that the garden shares with the church. If any part of the well breaks, the garden is responsible for the repair, and fixing the well is imperative because the garden does not use any city water. With heat and drought such as this summer’s, a week without water could be detrimental to crops.

“Since I have been there, the well pump has broken once, and it cost about $500,” Harden said, emphasizing the relief of having funds available for such an emergency.

The dues also cover faucet repairs, but not hoses or tools, though there is a stock of tools that gardeners can use that people have left over the years. They also pay for cover crop seeds for abandoned plots, some maintenance, such as the recent hire of someone not allergic to poison ivy to remove a large patch of the plant from along a fence around the garden, and replacement parts for the lawnmower, another abandoned object, which Harnden recently repaired himself.

“We are becoming more of an organization. In the past, it’s just never had that – at least as long as I have been there – it’s been loose, and now we’re trying to learn from some problems in the past of why the community garden has not worked well,” Harnden said.

Harnden thinks “our society” needs to take a turn toward sustainability, and local organic gardening is a great step in that direction. “Ours is one that needs some pretty big changes, and this is one way that will let us be a society for a lot longer.”

Giesler agrees. “People have the opportunity to garden where they are at, regardless of their living situation,” he said. “The way the economy is going, the way gas prices are rising… we are in this rut where we don’t know what is going to happen next. But it is good to think about how you can sustain yourself and others.”

Harnden and other gardeners give their fruits to others in the community, such as single mothers and the octogenarian across the street, who often need fresh food.

“I think San Marcos has a lot of energy going in this direction,” he added. “A lot of people are interested in this sort of thing, a lot of people that talk about making changes happen but don’t really know what to do, and supporting a community garden is a really great way to do it. It is a step toward living in harmony with nature. We’re just trying a lot to get people from the community to be pro-active.”

Curious people can visit the San Marcos Community Garden’s wikispace at


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2 thoughts on “Community garden dating back to WWII thrives in San Marcos

  1. This is a wonderful and inspiring article. At our house, although we are not yet doing a local garden, we are starting to buy more of our food items at the local farmer’s market (which operates each Tuesday starting at 3pm), and we are enjoying many vibrant flavors we either forgot about or never knew.

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