Recently, we sat down with our garden expert Kate Mason-Murphy. We’re so appreciative to have found an Austin community member who is so passionate and experienced in building community gardens. Kate has been a tremendous help in spearheading our garden partnership with St. Elmo– a local elementary school within a mile of our office. Our goal through this partnership is to provide opportunities for students and the local community to learn how to grow fresh fruit and vegetables and develop a connection to healthy eating. See below to learn more about Kate’s involvement in the Austin community, our partnership with St. Elmo Elementary School and tips for starting your own garden!
Q: How did you first become involved in community gardens?
A: I started front yard gardening about 20 years ago and shared the bounty with friends and neighbors. In 2012 a few things happened. The City adopted the Imagine Austin Master Plan and embarked on a community engagement process that lasted 18 months. There was an incredible interest in protecting our green spaces, improving access to our greenbelt and trails, and for growing food locally. Food was always #1. During that same period of time, Austin was experiencing an explosion in population growth and development, and our community’s green spaces were disappearing at an alarming rate. And personally, I ran out of sun in my yard. 🙂
One Saturday, my husband and I built and installed 2 raised bed gardens at the front of our neighborhood at South 1st and Emerald Wood on City-owned land with a sign that read “Food is Free.”
Eventually, we installed a water tap, secured The Sustainable Food Center as our fiscal sponsor and gained City-approval. The Emerald Wood Community Garden currently supports at least 20 families, if not more. We don’t fence it because we were founded on a core believe that food should be free if you need it.
Q: How can a school community garden impact the livelihood of the students – and the broader community?
A: St. Elmo is a Title 1 School which means that 70% of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunch. Most of the students live in two Foundation Communities properties, a progressive apartment complex system, which provides stable and long-term affordable housing. Residents have access to dry goods like beans and rice through a food bank in their apartment, but they don’t have access to produce. Now they have a small farm stand that opens one afternoon every other week, but they don’t have a place where they could go out every day to harvest.
We have a lot of land at St. Elmo. It’s our destination park for our community and it seems that engaging the community (especially 1st generation immigrants who aren’t that far removed from agriculture) and giving them the opportunity to grow their own food works because many remember gardening in their home country. That was part of it and then the new principle at St. Elmo – Mr. McCormack just secured funding for all St. Elmo students to have free breakfast and lunch starting in the fall. He envisions a garden to café model. The goal is that we start to utilize the food we grow to feed our kids and that all the supplemental food is for the families or for an affordable farmers markets for the families.
Q: What’s your grand vision for St. Elmo Elementary School?
A: What’s really awesome about St. Elmo is that there was nothing there when we started our partnership. I believe there are 7 acres co-owned by the city and the school district. We are putting in 10 raised bed gardens. We won a Bright Green Future School Grant for large scale rainwater collection. We’re looking around a 3,000-gallon capacity and an outdoor watershed education classroom.
There are two different areas where we could have small orchards – we’re looking at 14 fruit trees going in two different areas. There’s also an area where the kids are not allowed to play, as it’s too close to South 1st. It’s over half an acre and the principal loved the idea of that being our farm. Ideally, we will install the micro-farm in the fall and the 5th graders will run a farm stand. We don’t know the details; we’re hoping to work with Farmshare and the Central Texas Food Bank.
When we participated in the Imagine Austin community engagement process, one of the other things that came up repeatedly was the desire for more places to see music and other forms of creative and artistic expression. Austin is the Live Music Capitol of the world and what a better place to build than a neighborhood school! St. Elmo was on everyone’s radar because there is so much space and it’s completely underutilized at this point. The plan is to build an outdoor stage on the backside of the music portable with a painted mural backdrop. We’ll plant trees to protect from the west sun. We have already expanded one fence line to capture more green space for the school and we’re expanding another one so that we have more places for people to sit for live performances.
Q: What other Austin community sustainability projects?
A: Currently I’m working on a lot; I’ll pick the big ones. The Emerald Wood Community Garden is the one that we started about 7 years ago. Across the street from that is an early childcare center and we started a gardening and outdoor classroom program 3 years ago. The children in the Early Childhood Care Center garden at the community garden and on site.
All of this sits on the Williamson Creek and we’re working on the Williamson Creek Greenway Visioning project. Once complete, the Williamson Creek Greenway will connect McKinney Falls State Park in far East Austin to far West Austin separate from auto. There are hundreds of homes along this stretch that have been demolished as part of a flood buyout and are now open green space. They aren’t all together, they are in little pockets. We have 5 distinct pockets that we can create park amenities, trails, community gardens, orchards and places for people to congregate in the greater St. Elmo Elementary attendance area.
Q: What tips do you have for someone wanting to start a garden at their home?
A: It’s easy to start. It’s a little bit harder to be successful. We do a lot of raised bed gardens because we have so much drought here and it’s a really good way to keep your plants watered. We use ollas, a sunken terra cotta pot that’s unglazed, filled with water. The roots tap underneath the surface. That allows us to not do much top watering and lose it to evaporation. When you top water in that kind of environment it helps weed seeds germinate. It keeps the weeds down and it keeps the plants growing from the roots.
At a school raised bed gardens using the Square Foot Gardening Method is awesome because it’s very mathematical. A 4’x8’ garden box is 32 cubic feet and so if you were to run string you would have 32 squares and 32 individual crops in every garden box, planted at different density levels. We’re going to have 10 garden boxes so we’re looking at 320 different crops if we wanted to. It’s a way to grow very intensely without a lot of water.
I would start with a garden box with untreated wood, you don’t want it to leach into your soil. My favorite has been rough cut cedar, like first cuts of Ash Juniper, but 2 x 6 cedar works well too. Bermuda grass is an Austin gardener’s nemesis for gardens, so we put down 3-4 inches of cardboard. It is a natural weed barrier that will break down in about a year and provides habitat in the process. We’ll put down about 3-4 inches of cardboard allowing for a one-foot border, lay the box on top, place the ollas where they reach as many plant roots as possible. If we have bagged leaves, those go in next. Add a good quality garden soil, something that fluffs it up a little, either a peat moss or a vermiculite, and finish the project off with 3-4” of mulch outside the box, covering the cardboard.
Then we plant them and give them some love and compost tea. The following season will be much better, it really takes about a year for the soil to settle in. At this point now you have your garden box, and it should be filled all the way to the top. All you need to do is top compost and lightly mix it two or three times a year. You never need to till. Some people don’t even pull their plants when they’re finished, they’ll cut them because there’s so much nutrient value in the roots.
Q: What’s your favorite Rhythm Superfoods snack?
A: I love kale chips – pretty much any flavor; I was surprised how much I liked the Zesty Nacho. The Sea Salt Beet Chips are my other go-to when I want something a little sweet.
Thanks Kate! Stay tuned for more exciting updates on our partnership with St. Elmo Elementary School.