Wasatch Community Gardens to save Og-woi Garden in Salt Lake City

In a March letter, the city had told the Og-woi collective that they would have to remove all garden infrastructure.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Built in May 2020, the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden is located on the Jordan River in the Fairpark neighborhood, April 14, 2023. The center garden mural commemorates Margarita Satini, a community organizer, who died of COVID-19 in 2020. The city had told the Og-woi group that they needed to remove the mural.

An unofficial community garden in Salt Lake City was facing a May 1 deadline to remove a commemorative mural a community leader and is removing key garden features, but Wasatch Community Gardens is stepping in to help organizers secure funding that could shore up the property’s future.

In a March letter from the Public Lands Department to garden aide Tom King, city leaders had told volunteers at the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden in the West Fairpark neighborhood that they would have to temporarily remove the mural and stop planting when volunteers close the site wanted to formalize once and for all as a community garden.

The city had also said that the Og-woi collective would have to remove all garden boxes, trellis and the wooden kiosk they had built in the garden and halt all other construction there. As of May 1, the city said in the letter, “The Public Lands Department may, at the department’s discretion, remove any materials or plants from the garden.”

The Og-woi Garden has been a polarizing feature since it began in 2020, when six young trees were planted without permission on a weed-infested piece of public land near the Jordan River and a neighborhood cul-de-sac. Since then it has grown around a community bulletin board; the mural of Pacific Islander community activist Margarita Satini; raised garden beds; a memorial to gardener Hali Vanderburg, who died of cancer in 2021; an orchard; and a pollinator garden.

(Kolbie Peterson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marigolds are photographed on Friday, October 15, 2021 at the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden. The flowers were planted by Hali Vanderburg, who died of cancer in July 2021.

According to the city’s letter, local residents had expressed “continued and legitimate concerns” about the “illicit origin of the garden”; soil quality considerations; and a desire to ensure that any potential use of the site has adequate infrastructure to be a long-term commons.”

The Public Lands Department encouraged the Og-woi volunteers to submit an application for the Capital Improvement Program (CIP). Only after the CIP application was approved and funded would the Public Lands Department “be able to conduct public engagement, design and construction for appropriate, community-supported, continued use of this public space.”

Mayor Erin Mendenhall raised the issue of soil quality in another April 6 letter to the Og-woi Collective, in which she said: “As someone who has battled pollution throughout my career that affects the Impacting communities, I cannot allow food and medicines to be grown in soil contaminated with lead, arsenic and benzopyrene.” Benzopyrene comes from certain substances if they are not completely burned, according to the National Cancer Institute.

But CIP funding would allow for soil remediation in the garden and would fund a municipal irrigation line so the garden would not have to be watered from a private water source.

In their response to the mayor, the gardening collective announced its partnership with Wasatch Community Gardens, which currently manages all of Salt Lake City’s community gardens, according to Luke Allen, public relations, events and marketing at Public Lands. Wasatch Community Gardens will also help Og-woi through the CIP process.

“To ensure all medicinal and food crops are grown in a city-approved manner, we will begin work [Wasatch Community Gardens] to ensure safe gardening practices and better access to food throughout the summer,” the gardening collective explained in its letter to the mayor.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Built in May 2020, the Og-woi People’s Orchard and Garden is located on the Jordan River in the Fairpark neighborhood, April 14, 2023. The center garden mural commemorates Margarita Satini, a community Organizer who died from COVID-19 in 2020.

Wasatch Community Gardens “has an established history of developing successful community gardens, so this is a significant update,” Allen told The Salt Lake Tribune. The organization manages Fairpark Community Garden, Rose Park Community Garden, and 15 other lots throughout Salt Lake County.

Georgina Griffith-Yates, executive director of Wasatch Community Gardens, said in an email, “Wasatch Community Gardens is dedicated to empowering people to grow and eat their own food. I am grateful for the opportunity to work to support important grassroots gardens like Og-woi through our decades-long partnership with the city.”

“I’m optimistic about the prospects of Og-woi having a path forward to partnering with the city through the CIP process, as well as short-term solutions that will potentially enable food growth in 2023,” she continued.

Now the city is in discussions with Wasatch Community Gardens to “understand options for oversight of Og-woi Garden through an existing management arrangement with the organization,” Allen said. He added that such an agreement would preserve the mural of Satini, who died of COVID-19 in 2020.

“We feel really good about not having to remove this monument,” said volunteer Adair Kovac. “It felt really bad to be confronted with that.”

King added: “It’s great that [the city wants] continue working with our group. And it’s even better that they won’t be demanding the loss of all the community resources that have made the garden such a beautiful asset to the community.”

As the talks progress, “We hope to retain some amenities at the site,” Allen said. “The city currently has no plan or specific date to remove the facilities in the garden.”

Justin Scaccy

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