If you’ve ever attempted to garden at high elevations, you know it is no simple undertaking. In 2013, as part of its mission to connect our community to the enjoyment of good, clean, and fair food by inspiring a self-reliant food culture, Slow Food Lake Tahoe (SFLT) became the steward of the Truckee Demonstration Garden.
Katie Townsend-Merino, a recently retired college professor and administrator, took over as Garden Manager when she moved to her second home in Truckee. It was Katie who Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation (TTCF) contacted to follow up on a Queen of Hearts Women’s Fund grant awarded to SFLT this past year.
Katie overflowed with gratitude and excitement for the improvements the grant has allowed her to make. Upon beginning the interview with TTCF, she emphatically invited Queen of Hearts supporters to drop by the garden or schedule a tour.
Below is the abbreviated interview in which Katie weaves together how a single grant can build an oasis in a desert, educate near and far, feed the elderly, and bring together a community.
Katie Townsend Merino (KTM), Slow Food Lake Tahoe
Ashley Cooper (AC), TTCF Storyteller and Queen of Hearts supporter
AC: How’s summer going at the garden?
KTM: Great! It’s the most beautiful and productive season yet. We finished two of the new big structures; one contains bush beans, the other cucumbers and squash. We’re also growing tomatoes for the first time ever in the garden – five different varieties within a “wall of water” that surrounds them.
The Kids Garden is freshly painted with a flower garden, sink, and new bench. We bought high-quality gardening tools for the kids, and just finished flagstone entry ways. Next week we hope to have a sand box.
We also built extra shelving in the green house to do a lot more starts this year. In the next two weeks, we’ll build the Bean House around the hay bale garden.
AC: Wow, busy summer! A lot of that was funded by the Queen of Hearts Grant, is that correct?
KTM: Yes, the grant covered all of that and the costs of tools, supplies, seeds, and starters. It also helped us develop workshops. High altitude gardening is very difficult with extreme temperature changes, critters, and really short seasons. We designed workshops to encourage people to grow their food despite those obstacles.
In May, we collaborated with the Master Gardeners from South Lake Tahoe to give four workshops: asparagus, garlic and onions, tomatoes, and strawberries. People were given multiple seed varieties to grow in their yard and now they send their data so we can determine what grows best in our regional micro-climates. Some organic farmers in Colorado are even collecting our data to help them grow there.
We also partnered with the Truckee Roundhouse to host a workshop on building garden beds. Truckee Tahoe Lumber sold us discounted lumber for the beds, and people signed up as teams, some with their grandmas or partners. Roundhouse teachers taught them how to use the power tools and participants built most of their beds that day. The following day, they took Organic Gardening 101 in the Demonstration Garden. Many of those people have since become garden volunteers.
AC: It’s always great to hear that people are volunteering locally!
KTM: The garden’s a lot of work, I work about thirty hours a week during grow season and still I couldn’t do it alone. It really takes a community. I’ve also had my grandson with me for the beginning of the summer, my other grandkids will come later this year. My husband is always ready to help.
I come from a long line of farmers and fieldworkers. I’m happy with my hands in the dirt. I raised my kids and grandkids gardening and want them have a sense of gratitude for the people who provide them with food.
AC: How can someone come volunteer?
KTM: Just show up! We have volunteer days Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from around 9:00am – 1:00pm- earlier on Monday because it’s harvest day. The third Saturday of the month, we have a “Dig In” with big construction projects. About fifteen to twenty people come to those.
AC: You have a partnership with Sierra Senior Services to give them the harvest, right? Can you tell me a bit about that?
KTM: When I first took over the garden, it became clear that it’s important to know what happens with the food you grow. The garden needed a purpose. Now, every Monday I drop off approximately ten to fifteen pounds of fresh organic produce to the Senior Center to be served there and through Meals on Wheels. It always includes fresh greens, herbs, and whatever else is growing. In 2016, we served 60-70 “second meals” a day for seniors in our community.
It’s so rewarding. Our first week’s harvest only had rhubarb, and when I dropped it off a 95 year old woman asked for a raw piece and started chewing it. She said, “this takes like when I grew up”.
AC: Speaking of childhood and plants, how do children react to the garden?
KTM: All of them are super excited to plant and water, and some are really into getting dirty. KidZone just did two weeks of “Farm Camp” with half their time at the demonstration garden.
Sierra Expeditionary Learning School sent their kindergarten class for a tour. Everyone planted a seed and a flower. Each kid also made a necklace with radish seeds to wear in a little baggy around their neck, your body heat makes the seeds sprout. We also do tours for Tahoe Donner day camps and the camps in the park.
Most little kids, from three to five years old, don’t even know their food comes from underground. I always make sure they can eat something whether it’s mint or lettuce.
AC: Do kids volunteer or come with their parents?
KTM: Sometimes they come with their parents who have a question or are dropping off compost, and they run right over to the garden. We’re making a sign that says “Come Play.” I always tell them, “help me plant, help me weed, help me water.” There’s always something to do and kids love having something to do.
AC: Wait… compost?
KTM: Yes! You can come in with a huge amount of produce to dump in the compost. It helps us immensely.
AC: Last question: As you’ve entered into this new chapter of your life, how does this endeavor fit into everything else you’re creating?
KTM: Well in several ways. One, I want to participate in the world and greater community in a way that makes me feel open-hearted and not closed. I always feel open in the garden.
Second, I’m super present while I’m gardening. It’s just me and the plant I’m with. That’s always true, I don’t have to think about whether or not I am projecting into the past or future. Gardening itself is a mindfulness practice. (**Side note: Katie teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction locally).
Third, I want to feel like what I do in my life connects me to others face to face. I have faith that people will come and help, especially if I make it a space with great, open love. People want to experience that and be a part of a really radical, loving, communal place. I meet the best people in the garden, it’s amazing. The world is challenging, this makes me feel more connected and closer to people, not farther away or more separate.
AC: Thank you so much for sharing that. Anything else we should know?
KTM: Come down and visit me! I’m always there. You can volunteer, swing in to ask your gardening questions, you can also schedule a tour. Come alone or bring your family or friends. You can also have meetings at the garden, we’ve built long benches and it’s a really lovely place to be.
Volunteer in the Garden:
Tuesdays & Thursdays: 9AM – 12PM