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Fed by a growing national fervor for vegetable gardening, a countywide movement has sprouted to conscript as many yards, public spaces and empty lots as possible into service for food production.

The "Grow Healthy Food" initiative, or "iGROW Sonoma," officially launched in February with a Web site, iGROWsonoma.org. It is serving as a cyber-meeting spot to share information and promote gardening efforts all over the county.

And with the spring planting season swinging in to gear, supporters are ramping up their efforts with a weekend planting blitz on May 15 and 16.

The "350 Garden Challenge" has a goal of planting 350 gardens in a single weekend.

"It could be something as large as ripping out your lawn and putting in a food garden or edible landscape, or it could be something as small as planting a fruit tree or putting a drip system into existing raised beds," said Beth Radko, a point person for the challenge.

Planting plans

In Sebastopol, a whole neighborhood is undertaking a "block garden installation," planting five to six ecologically designed gardens. The U.S. Coast Guard is sending out a crew to help prepare the soil, both in that neighborhood and at the Burbank Heights senior housing in Sebastopol.

And in Sonoma Valley, Nuestra Voz, a nonprofit that provides leadership development in the Sonoma Valley Latino community, has canvased the Boyes Hot Springs area, identifying households that want to put in gardens but don't have the resources or land.

"We'll connect them with some materials to do container gardens," said Erin Axelrod, a program director for Daily Acts of Petaluma, a major booster of iGROW.

Promoting gardening is in the interest not just of individuals who can grow healthy food for the plate, but also for government agencies grappling with issues of pollution and scarce resources, said Axelrod. Industrial agriculture is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, so switching to smaller production at a local level eases that, she said.

And while gardens do use water, they are a more efficient use of irrigation water than lawns or thirsty ornamentals.

Community goals

The larger goal is to eventually see "a garden on every block," or at least in every neighborhood.

Supporters want each community to have at least one higher profile model garden to showcase eco-friendly gardening techniques, from low-water-use irrigation to organics to greywater applications.

iGROW is similar to "iWALK Sonoma," which was launched last year to get people exercising. Both are projects of Health Action, a multi-agency consortium which the county Board of Supervisors formed to promote public health through a range of prevention and education programs. iGROW is aimed at improving what people eat by galvanizing them to start gardening wherever possible.

"We're hoping as more and more people touch and taste the experience of healthy fresh food, their appreciation for it will grow," said Ellen Bauer. She oversees the Health Action program through the department of health services' prevention and planning division.

Communities are jumping into the act all over the county.

"This is very exciting for us. We're looking for even more community gardens. We have one at the senior center and one at the high school," said Cloverdale Mayor Carol Russell, who is a member of the Health Action Committee.

"This is a rural agricultural area, and gardening is so automatic here. ... A handful of community volunteers last year gleaned 1? tons of fruit and vegetables just from what was in our edible landscapes and from people's gardens."

Online resource

The Web site is a one-stop shop for information on how to start a garden, a calendar of classes and events, gardening blogs, volunteer opportunities for gardening and gleaning, contact information for groups that sponsor or maintain gardens, places to volunteer and a registry of existing and new gardens to capture the collective food-growing power in the county.

The project is tapping into a growing global interest in vegetable gardening, both privately and collectively.

"It is becoming more mainstream now," said Vicki Garrett of the American Community Gardening Association in Columbus, Ohio, which in the past year has seen a 19 percent increase in phone inquiries and a 24 percent leap in e-mails from people interested in starting gardens.

"There have been a lot of food scares. We're getting our food from questionable places. The average food travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate," she said. "And then the economy just fell. So there are a lot of hungry people out there and a lot of interest in community gardening."

In Sonoma County, groups already are eyeing empty lots and making claims for new gardens.

St. James Catholic Church in Petaluma has turned a half-acre of unused parish land on Sonoma Mountain Parkway into a garden to raise food for the needy. And in Santa Rosa, the Knox Presbyterian Church is tilling a long-barren, half-acre lot at West Third Street and Stony Point Road. It will become 40 vegetable plots available to people who don't have their own yards, said co-organizer Ann McClure.

&‘A great need'

Community gardens are particularly valuable in urban areas and lower-income neighborhoods where people are renters.

"The space issue is a great need," said Magdalena Ridley, outreach coordinator for the Bayer Farm in Roseland, a community garden that is a joint project of the city of Santa Rosa and LandPaths. All of the farm's 36 plots are spoken for, and Bayer now has a waiting list.

The Grow Healthy Food effort, Bauer said, was born out of concern for the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other health risks that come from diets low in fresh fruits and vegetables. More than half of all adults 18 and older in Sonoma County are overweight, according to the California Health Survey, and the numbers are rising.

Battling obesity

The percent of overweight or obese people 18 and older jumped from 28 percent in 1997 to 56 percent in 2005. Among youth age 4 to 20, the rate increased from 21.8 percent in 2002 to 23.5 percent in 2006. The rate is even higher among the low-income population, where more than two-thirds of adults reported being overweight.

Obesity also is a major risk factor for diabetes, said Bauer, with nearly 5 percent of the local population diagnosed with the disease.

"This is all about making connections," Bauer said. "It's a network to help people find out what's out there. But hopefully it will stimulate even more activity.

"There are a lot of experienced food growers in the community, and we want to encourage people to share their knowledge and their skills with each other."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com