For the past few weeks, Allison Demarest has been digging around in a vacant lot on Fort Street that belongs to the Cathedral of the Rockies. She is building what she calls the Boise Downtown Community Garden. Rather than dividing it up into small plots, Demarest will have people work on the entire garden and split up the food. On the hot afternoon we visited, Demarest had just overseen the installation and inspection of a donated water pump, filled her raised beds with topsoil and spread mulch across the lot.
How did you start this garden project?
It started, like, two years ago. I got to spend some time in Africa with a small humanitarian organization from Boise called the Small Village Foundation. And after spending time in Africa with them, in South Africa, I got back to Boise with my family and decided that I wanted to put school on hold. I was going to the University of Puget Sound. And I was in my sophomore year then ... and decided that it could wait for a bit because I had some purposeful work to do. In October of '07, I landed in this farm in upstate New York and got to spend some time there for a year. It's a farming community that works with people with special needs.
What is it called?
Camp Hill Village. It's a worldwide movement of biodynamic farms and gardens. So anyway, spent a year there, got back to Boise in November of '08 and right before I got back to Boise, I had been traveling a bit in the East. And it was while I was there on the East Coast, feeling kind of trapped by all this concrete and not seeing enough grass in urban areas, that I decided that community gardening would be my next kind of project.
And more than the gardening, it was the desire to create community for people. To create a place where people could gather and where people could get to know one another, and not just any community, but a diverse community.
What did you do in Africa?
It was just a trip, a trip for Small Village, and they go every, like, two years, and so we had gone just for two weeks and at the end of those two weeks, on the 15th day at the Johannesburg airport, I decided that, um ... I wasn't leaving. So I forfeited my plane ticket, called home and said, "I don't know when I'll be home" and called a really cool woman who I had met when I was there, who works with a water pump program. And asked her if I could stay with her, and so I stayed on her farm for a few more weeks.
And then you had to buy a new plane ticket?
And then I decided it was time to come home and showed up at the airport with my invalid plane ticket and pleaded and begged and got back to Boise on standby the whole way.
So how did you get the farming job?
It was actually through the AmeriCorps. Yeah. Kind of fateful and really by chance that I ended up there but it was definitely the right thing for the time.
I don't mean to be an ass but, you're here alone farming, where is the community?
Well ... gosh, I guess it kind of started with just me, alone, and this initiative, like, five and a half months ago. Since then, I've recruited all kinds of people from all kinds of places, businesses and organizations and individuals from around town. We've only recently started the actual physical work. Today we had a class from Boise High out here, which was cool, and they've been with us for, like, the last week.
People commit to being an active gardener, what I'm calling an active gardener is someone who is committing between three and five hours a week. So there is no money exchanged and there is no individual plots that families or individuals kind of own. It's a method that I'm calling unified gardening, and it's people working together to maintain the entire space, and in return for that, getting vegetables.
So tell me about your beds. Are you only planting in these raised beds?
Basically how it works is there is this central gathering spot, and that's kind of similar to, like, the holy center of an old village or something like that, where the church would be. It's like the community spot, the place where people gather and the place where those relationships I think are created.
Is that where your giant spool is now?
That's where the spools are ... so that space is a big circle in the center. And from there you have three clusters of raised beds. We have 20 raised beds at the moment and in each of the corners there are in-ground beds.
So how'd you find an Eagle Scout to build your raised beds?
I just Googled Eagle Scout, or Boy Scouts of Idaho and e-mailed whoever looked most official, who turned out to be, like, the executive director or something. He passed that on to a troop guy, troop master, whatever it is ... troop leader. I knew the guy, the Eagle Scout who is working on the shed for us.
Do you find that people are eager to plant their own food?
Yeah, there have been very few people who have reacted negatively. Very few. Most people are, especially now, realizing how important it is to know how to grow your own food.
Is this like a long-term project for you?
No. My goal is to make it sustainable, you know, and I have a lot that I'm looking forward to and so many plans. Yeah, going back to school someday and traveling some more and getting back to Africa, so yeah, there's a lot that I still want to do. But I really am committed to making the garden sustainable, and it might not be here on this site, but it'll be somewhere in the downtown--that's a priority for me.
The downtown to me is a place that is accessible to everybody. We have other community gardens in Boise, but you'll often see one in a low-income apartment housing place and only refugees and low-income families can use it. Or one, say in the North End, and only North End residents get to use it. This place is something that everyone can access, everybody can come here and a lot of people come down here anyway for other things.
So, what do you do for a living?
Nothing ... this, except I don't make any money. I live at [my parents'] right now.
So you want people to hang out here then?
Yeah, I mean not to like, loiter around, but to come and to chat with one another and to eat lunch here, and to be here, and to gather here and not just to come to work.