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Hope sprouts from the ashes

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The Blue Heron Community Garden in Phoenix is growing again as the anniversary of the Almeda fire approaches
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Jamie Howington is one of the new gardeners tending a plot at the restored Blue Heron Community Garden.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Sandy Wine, a member of the Blue Heron Community Garden steering committee, shows a native pollinator plant donated by the Pollinator Project of Rogue Valley.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Colorful flowers and pollinators, like this marigold and bee, are returning to the Blue Heron Community Garden after the garden was destroyed in the Almeda fire of 2020.
Photo courtesy of Sandy Wine A charred electrical pole in the Blue Heron Community Garden is one of only a few reminders of the destruction that occurred Sept. 8, 2020.

“In the fabled state

we live in, somewhere always is on fire —

dry grasses torching, shingles searing,

latches melting, miles of forest

reduced to the single syllable of ash…“

— from Susan Cohen’s “Golden Hills of California” in “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California,” 2018

It’s hard to believe that next week, on Sept. 8, it will have been one year since the Almeda fire torched the cities of Phoenix and Talent, destroying many businesses along Highway 99 and more than 2,500 homes, and leaving an apocalyptic scene of charred rubble and ash in its wake.

The other day as I drove through Phoenix for the first time in months, I could see signs of the city’s renewal: Most of the debris has been hauled away, businesses and houses are slowly being rebuilt, and the landscape is gradually greening itself as groundcover emerges among scorched oak and madrone trees that somehow survived the fire.

Perhaps one of the most hopeful signs of Phoenix’s literal rise from the ashes is at Blue Heron Park, the town’s beloved outdoor gathering place, and at the Blue Heron Community Garden, in particular. Here is where I met Sandy Wine, a Phoenix resident who has served as a member of the garden’s steering committee for the past seven years.

“The first time I came back to the garden (after the Almeda fire), I said ‘Forget about it!’ I was so discouraged — there was practically nothing left,” Sandy said after we settled into chairs beside the plot she tends with a friend.

She described how the fire rampaged through the community garden, destroying the cultivated plants, wooden tool shed (and the tools inside the shed), bird houses, compost bins, gazebo and picnic table. I could see the fire’s wind-driven trajectory as Sandy pointed out random sections of wooden fencing that have been replaced and new raised bed borders that have been built right next to wooden borders that escaped the flames.

Sandy’s gloom over the destruction of the garden didn’t last long. Buoyed by the resilient spirit of the community and fellow gardeners, she quickly realized the garden had to be rebuilt. “We couldn’t just let it go; it means a lot to this community,” Sandy said.

Thanks in part to the steering committee’s efforts to raise awareness and secure grants, donations to restore the community garden began coming in from gardeners, residents, businesses and the city. In addition to numerous cash and equipment donations made anonymously by local citizens, Home Depot gave $4,750 in merchandise, and the Jackson County Master Gardener Association provided a $1,600 grant.

In addition, Phoenix High School donated two student-built tool sheds, and the city’s Public Works Department transported the sheds to the garden. The Eagle Point Community Garden provided replacement tools. The Pollinator Project of Rogue Valley donated native plants as part of its “From Fire to Flowers” initiative to distribute native pollinator plants to people who lost their homes and gardens in the Almeda fire. 1st Phoenix Community Center donated blueberry bushes.

I asked Sandy why she thinks the community has been so generous in its help to rebuild the garden. “It was a morale issue,” she replied. “After the fire, the whole community was depressed. People needed something to dream about and hope for.”

The next step was to test the garden soil for contaminants. Samples were sent to A&L Western Laboratory in Portland and, fortunately, the results showed arsenic and lead concentrations in the soil after the fire were well below levels that would cause any concern for growing food crops.

After clearing away the charred remains, work on restoring the community garden began in February. Compost was added, new raised beds, compost bins and fencing were built, irrigation and pathways were re-installed. Then gardeners came back to start planting. Some of them, like Sandy, have been working in the community garden for years. Others are newcomers to the garden, taking over plots that had been tended by gardeners who did not return to Phoenix after they lost their home in the fire.

One newcomer is Jamie Howington, who has been working in the community garden since the beginning of summer. She’s growing sunflowers, tomatillos and squash in a raised bed that was rebuilt after it was destroyed in the fire. Jamie showed up at the garden one day by accident, thinking she was attending an unrelated event at the park. However, before she left that day, Jamie had signed on for a plot and she’s been growing in it happily ever since.

Sandy said there’s a range of ages and backgrounds among the gardeners at Blue Heron Park. “The community is well represented, and we have a lot of combined knowledge that is passed around,” she said. All 24 plots are currently filled, and Sandy says there’s a short wait list for garden beds next year.

Although she initially thought restoring the garden was hopeless, Sandy has seen what a community working together can accomplish. Now she’s looking toward the future. The steering committee is looking for ways to secure a greenhouse that will enable gardeners to grow year-round, and they want to expand the garden’s educational programs for local youth.

Another good thing that came out of the fire is the community garden’s new solar energy system, donated by garden member John Moses. Nearby the new solar panels stands a charred electrical pole with a sign attached that reads: September 8th, 2020, Almeda Wildfire.

“That pole is the only landmark left from the fire, and I think it should stay to remind us all how devastating the fire was and how important it is to practice fire safety,” Sandy said.

Other than the scorched electrical pole, the Blue Heron Community Garden shows few signs of the devastation that occurred there one year ago. The bottom of the sign says it all: “A garden rising from the ashes.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

Share your garden story

I would love to talk with you about your garden and share your garden story in an upcoming column. Email me at Rnowak39@gmail.com.