Landscape architect Marsha Tolon reflects on her 33 years as a P-Patch member and the universal language of gardening.

Marsha Tolon, Burke-Gilman P-Patch

What got you interested in gardening?

When I was a kid, our family would go to the grocery store, and I would always go to the magazine aisle and look at gardening and flower magazines like Sunset Western Garden. I would read them while everyone was shopping and so on in high school. I grew up in Everett and there was even a Future Farmers of America, FFA, which I joined. On this side of the mountains, it’s more horticultural, but we had forestry classes in high school. So it encouraged me and I tried to make a vegetable garden at home. From there, I had an interest in thinking about horticulture as a career. But I didn’t work in that part of my education until graduate school, when I studied landscape architecture. I had that in my background, but I still wanted to be a gardener, which brought me to the P-Patch Program.

How long have you been participating in the P-Patch program?

I have been a part of the P-Patch system for 33 years! I started in the Interbay P-Patch, then got a plot closer to where I live in Phinney Ridge. My dream was always to have my own garden at home, but I just enjoyed community gardening. When I moved here, the surrounding apartments and the Children’s Center were not yet built. After the construction plans for the residential development were completed, I had the opportunity to help plan the garden, figure out where the water lines would go, how the plots would be laid out, just the general layout and site plan. That in 93′ or 94′, then I bought a piece of land and have been in this garden ever since. Around that time I went through the King County Master Gardener program and served on the board for several years. Because this garden itself is one of the smaller gardens, you kind of wear many different hats. It’s probably been the last five or six years that I’ve collaborated with another person. Other people put on the leadership hat and I always tried to help with my Master Gardner knowledge and other things in my skill set.

How did the garden help you meet and interact with people you might not cross your path with?

Due to its proximity to an apartment complex and the University of Washington, this park has many families from other countries and international students. I just saw the world go by. These plots are here [pointing to nearby garden beds], the gardeners are from Vietnam, China and Nepal there. We have one from Iceland who was studying here for a short period of time, but they needed a horticultural space. The professors from Minnesota, who have only been here a year and a half, but needed a place to garden for no other reason than to find community. And then the housing development, all the kids around and preschool. I know I should think of them differently, but I think of them as products, these children’s products. That plot [pointing across the garden] The one with the dahlias is the preschool ‘P-Patch. I had a co-worker whose daughters were there and I remember offering her some green beans and she was chopping them up like nobody’s business. They weren’t unwashed or unprocessed or anything, but people like to consume straight from the P-Patch, and that’s fun.

You meet people from different backgrounds and different interests and that part is amazing. I’m learning about the different ways different people grow food and how crafty they use it to make things we can buy like tomato cages. Although English is not the medium we can use to talk to each other, gardening has become that universal language. It just shows me that the garden is the world. It is a microcosm of society and everything that happens within a community; how we work together to cross paths and contribute to our work parties; how we know each other and share information; and how we work with conflict. There are all these different things that you have to address because we’re all human.

Why do you think places like this garden are important?

It is an active way to express yourself and express who is there at that moment. I just think that these kinds of spaces are like breathing portals. Spaces where the community can breathe and breathe in a place that is not overly developed, but there is so much more if you choose to see and enjoy it. I think of it as breathing, whereas physical structures are very static, it’s always changing.

On a hot summer day or after a long day at work, it’s nice to come to this place in the evening, it’s light and still quiet. Sometimes you hear people chatting or having fun on the Burke-Gilman Trail, and other times you just hear people gardening and going about their business. It is very peaceful. I don’t know why; you see more smiles when people leave. Even if they’re just rushing for water or something, it’s a moment in nature, and it’s a great feeling. I love coming to my place and meeting other gardeners and sharing thoughts and ideas. There is nothing more enjoyable than that.

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