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Urban garden helps Mesa residents grow together

MESA -- Mesa chef Taylor Blackburn examined soil and watched a watering system put in place on his new garden bed early Monday evening.

The 24-year-old, Le Cordon Bleu-trained cook picked out the spot in the downtown Mesa Urban Garden with hopes to grow fresh vegetables to experiment with recipes at home.

"I was looking for a place to have a garden and I can't have it at my home so I stumbled upon this online," he said. "I'm just trying to expand my knowledge and have fresh produce available."

Blackburn is one of about two dozen individuals, families and groups that have already signed on to lease a bed in the newly created Mesa Urban Garden. After its grand opening at the end of January, about 25 percent of the more than 90 beds are already rented, said Ryan Winkle, who, along with David Crummey, is helping to organize and run the garden.

Mesa Urban Garden, a nonprofit seeking federal 501(c)(3) status, formed just a few months ago. Its board of directors includes people interested in creating a spot for the community to gather in downtown Mesa, just like Winkle and Crummey.

The idea for a community garden stemmed from the iMesa program to create new ideas for the city. Several proposals came forward for a garden and the Mesa Urban Garden's plan was selected.

The garden takes up about one-third of an acre just west of the Mesa Municipal Court. Urban Garden, also known as MUG, has a five-year lease for the lot at $1 a year.

Already, dozens of people have taken an interest. And a restaurant Republica Empanada opening soon next to the lot hopes to use a future patio at the garden in the evenings, they said.

"We have 200 people who can come out and say, 'I helped with this,'" Crummy said. "On 9/11 day, 100 turned out. We want to make this sustainable, with the most based term of that that it has to live beyond us."

The beds are now available for rent. Though some of the gardens are already showing a bounty of broccoli, Swiss chard, herbs and more, even novices can get involved, the men said. MUG can help direct people to information to start a garden and fellow gardeners can lend each other a hand.

Much of what has been used to put the garden in place was donated, from about 50 timers for individual beds to many of the newly planted trees.

Winkle said the group hopes to schedule events at the garden for people to come together, share ideas and grow not just their vegetables but an understanding of the food system.

"People nowadays don't have a connection of where food comes from. Most food comes from 500 miles away," he said.

They hope to have some of the garden supply food for restaurants, but there are many rules and regulations about where restaurants get their food, he said. A handful of plots are being tended by volunteers with plans to donate vegetables to local food banks.

Winkle and Crummey have both studied or are studying urban planning at Arizona State University. Several board members are professionals in the area or work with neighborhood development, they said.

"It's not just a garden. The events are not just for people who garden here. There's more than one reason to come here," Crummy said.

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