At 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, volunteers hastily munched on breakfast tacos and gulped down some cold water before breaking into teams, grabbing shovels, and getting to work. Even early in the morning, temperatures quickly rose to the 90s as a cloud of dust rose above the park. By the end of the day, a new community garden and “food forest” was built at Collins Garden in the near southwest side of San Antonio.

Green Spaces Alliance (GSA) sponsored the new garden, providing equipment, expertise, and volunteers. Collins Garden is GSA’s first new garden in several months, since they have recently focused on maintaining their existing gardens, and it brings their number of active gardens around the city to 38.

Throughout the day, nearly 100 volunteers came out from Wells Fargo, H-E-B, the community, and many of the board members from Green Spaces Alliance. Teams split up to build beds, spread mulch, and plant trees. I was assigned to the largest group, which spent hours manually removing the Bermuda Grass to make room for more desirable plants.

“Collins Garden has been on the radar for a long time, because they’ve done so many community initiatives,” said GSA Executive Director Julie Murphy. “Thanks to recent projects, they have a library, the park, and now an amazing community garden. It’s walkable and bikeable, and so it’s become a really great place to live.”

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The park at 1525 Nogalitos St. now includes shade structures, a playground, basketball courts, and a weekly farmers market on Sunday. Some of the produce from the garden will be sold at the market to make money to sustain the garden equipment.

Across from the park and garden is H-E-B’s first two-story store in the country. The H-E-B is the oldest of the grocery chain’s stores still in operation was recently renovated but retained its original façade. That combination of new and old is the general feeling that comes in the surrounding community, of which the garden will be an important part.

Before the gardening session began, long-time neighborhood Pastor Gil from Shepherd’s Gate Church blessed the soil. One older garden member, who has lived in Collins Garden his entire life has put together a collection of legacy plants gathered from the neighborhood over the course of decades. That collection will be planted in an allocated spot in the community garden for posterity.

Native plant specialists Joan Miller and Bea Caraway, both stewards of their own community gardens at Landa Library and Olmos Park Terrace, are also board members of Green Spaces Alliance. They supervised the creation of a native plant plot at Collins Garden to provide shade, protect biodiversity, and feed pollinators.

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales poses for a photo before the Council's special session begins. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5). File photo by Scott Ball.

In order to begin a garden, GSA requires eight unrelated community members to become members so that the loss of a single member’s participation won’t derail the entire project. The amount of volunteers during the build process is a good sign for ongoing community participation, including some shovel work by Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who stopped by garden construction to lend her support after working with GSA to get the garden approved.

“I’m happy to be here to do my part and find out about what can grow in this space and how to irrigate with water restrictions,” Gonzales said. “The park and the community are a great model for places around the city to combine spaces to work, live, and play. This is just a great event.”

H-E-B provided funding for the garden construction materials including the wood for raised beds, mulch for ground cover, and boulders for seats. That comes on top of their earlier investment neighborhood nonprofits during their recent store unveiling. The City has also invested in the park area recently, with San Antonio Metropolitan Health District renovating the sidewalks, basketball courts, and the children’s playground at Collins Garden.

The garden has eight large raised beds for vegetables, but most of the space will be used as a “food forest” with edible trees like citrus and persimmons.

“The trees will take a long time to produce fruit, but it’s about a long term investment,” Gonzales said.

Jacqueline Salame shows off some of the new trees for planting.
Jacqueline Salame shows off some of the new trees for planting. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

According to Jovanna Lopez, the garden steward at Collins Garden, the space will also include composting, water catchment, and a purple martin house. For centuries, Native Americans made homes for the purple martin to nest in. Once a pair of martins nest in a location and it’s managed properly, they come back every year after migrating.

That notion of nesting – of staying – is an important part of the garden’s creation.

“It’s important to show that good changes are happening while the same people are here,” Lopez said. “We don’t have to wait for a bunch of new and wealthier people to move in to get resources. We’re working really hard to make sure the current residents can see that they can have good resources in their neighborhood right now so they want to stay.”

*Featured/top image: Pastor Gil, Jovanna Lopez, Angela Hartsdale, and Julia Murphy break ground with other volunteers at Collins Garden’s new food forest. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

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Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.