Lucia Lun, like many members of St. Joseph the Worker Parish’s Zomi community, is an adept garden-er. She grows the fresh produce that is an important part of the Myanmar cuisine. In the front left, a bean plant climbs a repurposed bed headboard. (Courtesy Terri Fessler Boris)
Lucia Lun, like many members of St. Joseph the Worker Parish’s Zomi community, is an adept garden-er. She grows the fresh produce that is an important part of the Myanmar cuisine. In the front left, a bean plant climbs a repurposed bed headboard. (Courtesy Terri Fessler Boris)
Marc Boucher-Colbert, a professional gardening consultant who is the gardening specialist at the Franciscan Montessori Earth School in outer Southeast Portland, sees gardening as a great way to teach children about happiness and gratitude.

“All it takes is one thing to hook a kid,” said Boucher-Colbert, mentioning carrots, strawberry towers, bean pole teepees and sunflower rings as possible “hooks.”

That’s true for hooking parents and grandparents too.

The COVID-19 lockdown meant tens of thousands of non-gardeners or lackadaisical gardeners took another look at their backyards or signed on for a community garden plot.

Google searches for “gardens” surged last spring. An April 2020 survey by the National Gardening Association found 20% more adults saying they were gardening more than usual. That number was on top of an already higher than historic interest in gardening, especially on the part of young people, ages 18-39.

Thomas Scharff, who works for TriMet and who recently completed his master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Portland State University, is part of that younger group of gardeners.

His mother, Barb Scharff, a member of St. Ignatius Parish, said she has forever grown “meager” flowers and a smattering of vegetables.

The Scharffs got serious about gardening after Thomas learned about permaculture in Peru.

When he returned to Portland, he proposed making changes to the family’s backyard. Specifically, he suggested transforming it into a vegetable garden.

Veteran gardener Mark Ingman, then also a St. Ignatius parishioner, helped with the 2019 project.

Ingman told the Scharffs that for their garden to be productive, it would need more sun. And to get more sun, they would need to cut down their apple tree, the one they had planted for Thomas, his tree since his childhood.

Thomas voted for the garden, and his tree is now embedded throughout the yard as wood chips, feeding the soil as it decomposes. He and Ingman plowed and set up a drip irrigation system.

Now the space is ready for its third season of production, primed for arugula, cilantro, tomatoes, kale, lettuce, squash, herbs and even kohlrabi. The strawberries are out front.

“It’s a way to connect with our roots, growing your own food,” said Barb.

Boucher-Colbert sees Catholic gardeners as being ministers to their community and to the earth. That can mean “planting a row for the hungry” or connecting with neighbors while working a flower bed in the front yard — or sharing those strawberries.

Boucher-Colbert is a fan of St. Francis and thinks a nice statue of the saint is never amiss in the garden.

He’s also a supporter of the Outgrowing Hunger project, an initiative that connects garden plots with immigrant communities in East Portland. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has given the group a grant, and one of their gardens, at Southeast 150th and Division, is close to the Franciscan Montessori Earth School.

“The gardens reflect the ethnic heritage and show a lot of different methods of gardening,” said Boucher-Colbert.

Those Outgrowing Hunger gardens are just a couple blocks from St. Joseph the Worker Church and its thriving community garden.

Becky Fletcher, a longtime St. Joseph the Worker parishioner, is part of the plowing, planning and pruning force behind that parish’s garden.

“I just like seeing the plants grow — to see all the plots blossom and fill out,” she said.

The garden is made up of a dozen 12-by-10-foot beds, 10 of which are rented out to parishioners for $25 a year and two of which are planted to donate the crops to the parish’s food pantry. “We’re very proud of how much food we have given to the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry,” said Terri Fessler Boris, administrative assistant.

There are also a variety of berry bushes and two fruit trees.

In addition to giving produce to the food pantry, gardeners share and exchange produce. “That’s part of the fun,” said Fletcher.

The Zomi community at St. Joseph the Worker typically rents four or five well-kept beds.

Fletcher appreciates that the Zomi families garden with their children.

Community gardens don’t necessarily last forever.

Father Jeff Meeuwsen, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Aloha, is philosophical about the discontinued garden there. He explained that for now there aren’t the boots on the ground to make such a garden successful, adding that could always change. St. Mary Parish in Corvallis is another parish where the community garden is in abeyance.

Other parishes with community gardens include St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Sherwood, where volunteers work in the Hope Garden, producing vegetables and berries for the St. Francis Food Panty. Resurrection Parish in Tualatin has a sizable plot that helps feed the needy.

St. Henry Parish in Gresham has an invitation on its website inviting gardeners to sign up for a garden plot.

A final piece of advice?

“Grow tomatillos,” said Fletcher. “They’re so easy and they make great salsa.”

Online resources — Marc Boucher-Colbert’s website, with a blog offering advice on gardening. — This nonprofit includes a CSA and a farmers market program, a nutrition program, and classes in sustainable farming. — Add your name to a waitlist for a plot and learn the rules, including a requirement for organic gardening. — Sign up for a plot, ranging from a raised bed for $25 a year to 600 square feet for $125 a year; find resources and volunteer to help with big projects. — A Roseburg community garden project that offers workshops, plots and opportunities to help and be helped. — In Marion and Polk counties a food share program supports 60 gardens and needs help with big projects — Outgrowing Hunger helps low-income families find spaces to garden, mostly in community gardens in East Portland. Membership is open to anyone who donates time and/or dollars to support their mission of helping individuals and families to obtain and consume fresh vegetables and fruit through development of neighborhood-based agricultural projects and other appropriate means. — This handy calendar is a good start on figuring out what to plant when. It’s also a great source of ideas for vegetables beyond tomatoes and zucchinis. (Not that there’s anything wrong with tomatoes and zucchinis.)