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Volunteers around the Priest Rivers Community Garden sign

Community Garden Spurs New Growth

By Joni Kirk

An artichoke requires special care to grow and prosper in northern Idaho. So does a community.

Melissa Hamilton's work in Priest River has made both a reality.

Hamilton came to Idaho from Atlanta, Ga., to obtain a master's degree in bioregional planning and community design. From day one, she's been making an impact on small Idaho communities through her focus on food systems.

"My first summer, I had the opportunity to work in Cascade," she says. "I was working on an internship with the McCall Outdoor Science School. Cascade, 30 miles away, had a lot of energies going on with the bioregional planning program, and one of their ideas was to develop a community garden."

Hamilton quickly stepped up to lead the project, and worked closely with the university's Valley County Extension office to make it a reality.

In summer 2010, another opportunity arose – this one in Priest River.

"The Priest River community garden came out of a community brainstorming and visualization session," she notes. "Michele Vachon, the project manager for the Bioregional Planning and Community Design program, worked to obtain grants, and we ending up receiving a wonderful Inland NW Community Foundation – Community Strategies Grant."

In addition to funding Hamilton's internship, the grant covered supplies and the infrastructure costs for the garden. The $24,295 grant provided the community an opportunity to create a beautiful community garden space in their downtown. Local foundations, individuals, and businesses also contributed to the community garden efforts including: Phil Robinson (land owner), Priest River City Hall (water), Priest River Community Foundation (shed), League of Sandpoint Community Assistance, Rotary Club, High Country Fence, R.H. Excavating, Big Rock Landscaping, REA Landscaping and the Priest River Lamanna High School Woodshop.

"They were two completely amazing experiences I was able to participate in," says Hamilton. "I liked being able to directly apply what I'm learning in school in the field."

She noted that one of the challenges in working in a community is rallying the community around something, letting it spread and letting the enthusiasm grow.

"Being an outsider, coming and saying 'I'm going to be leading this project,' it's important to be able to relate back to those stakeholders and facilitate rather than run the program," she says. "Learning the dynamics of facilitating a process rather than being the leader of a process has been very valuable to me."

It was a skill she was able to master. Long-time residents of the community and relative newcomers joined together to make the garden a reality.

"I'm new to the community. It's hard for those of us who are relatively new to a community to connect with others," says Apryl Dionne, a Priest River resident. "This garden brought people together. It was a great opportunity for our community to benefit."

In the plot shared with her husband, Dionne managed to grow a fruitful artichoke plant in the northern climate. "It was very hard work," she says. "I had to stay on top of it. A lot of bugs wanted to get into it, and I had to wash each leaf of the plant to allow it to blossom."

Her labor was worth it. The plant produced an amazing 13 artichokes.

Hamilton shared in each community member's successes, and harvested her own lessons from the experience. She says the program has given her the skills to coordinate future efforts, conduct public outreach and create educational opportunities and programs inclusive of all ages.

"Being a graduate student in the McCall Outdoor Science School, I got a master's certificate in environmental education," says Hamilton. "Cumulatively, all the program exposure I've had at the university has led me to be a successful facilitator, especially in education programs for the garden."

She says gardening is a great way to provide environmental education – to get people connected to the land and to know where their food comes from. Hamilton partnered with Mike Bauer from University of Idaho Extension in Bonner County and the Priest River Library to offer food preservation programs.

Hamilton notes a favorite memory with the garden as a salad party she held for kids with the produce they'd grown and harvested. "I've never seen kids so excited about salad in my life! It was an amazing way to end my experience in Priest River."

Watch the YouTube Video of the Children at the Garden Salad Party