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Santa Rosa is a top spot for gardening in the US, according to LawnStarter study

If you like gardening, Santa Rosa is one of the best places in the country to be.

That’s the conclusion of a new nationwide survey that ranked Santa Rosa fourth in the nation for urban gardening. LawnStarter, an Austin, Texas-based lawn care company, compared 150 of the most populated cities in the U.S. for a variety of factors, including the number of garden clubs, community gardens and nurseries and the number of days of sunshine and length of the growing season.

Santa Rosa’s good scores placed it in the top tier, outranked only by three cities in The Sunshine State — Miami, Orlando and Tampa, Florida.

When it comes to the number of nurseries and garden centers per 100,000 residents, only Miami and Salem, Oregon, have better shopping opportunities for the green thumb crowd.

Gardening destination

Sonoma County has long been considered a destination for gardeners, who drive from far away to hop from one nursery to the next throughout the county. The area is rich in specialty nurseries, including California Carnivores for flesh-eating plants, Bamboo Sourcery for bamboo, Wildwood Nursery for dogwoods and Japanese maples and CalFlora for native plants.

“We made sure we covered every single statistic we possibly could to measure gardening activity and community gardening. And in so many ways, Santa Rosa is the perfect city to be able to do it,” LawnStarter spokesman Jeff Herman said.

Santa Rosa was one of only two California cities to make the top tier. Riverside in Southern California came in 10th. All of the other cities in the Top 12 were in the South, Herman said, except for St. Louis, Missouri, home to one of the oldest and best public botanical gardens in the country.

“Gardening is so popular because it’s so beautiful here,” said Teresa Hendrix, who was raised in Santa Rosa and returned after many years living on the Central Coast. “We have a lot of people here who really care about the environment and conserving water. And the climate is amazing. We can grow anything here.”

She said a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which has significant agricultural and horticulture programs, once said to her that you could throw anything in the ground in Santa Rosa and it will grow.

Hendrix is now president of the Windsor Garden Club, a 25-member group that focuses on civic service. The group manages a community garden in the Windsor Town Green. The garden has 70 raised beds, a quarter of which are sponsored beds. That means people donate the fees to have plots so low-income residents residents can have one. The club pays for water and upkeep and is in the process of fundraising to rebuild their 11-year-old raised beds.

There are active garden clubs all over Sonoma County, including in Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Valley of the Moon, Petaluma and two in Santa Rosa. There are also specialty societies for everything from irises and orchids to rare fruits.

County ranked 17th

Herman said the survey named Santa Rosa to a top spot but actually looked at the larger area of Sonoma County in gathering its statistics. The county ranked 17th in the country for regional gardening clubs and 27th for community gardens.

Sonoma County has long been a leader in community gardens. Santa Rosa is chock-full of them.

Arlie Haig, a 76-year-old retiree, is coordinator for several, including the Kawana and South Park community gardens, established to provide a place for neighborhood residents to grow and share fresh and healthy food and introduce urban kids to vegetable gardening. South Park, with 25 family plots in a diverse neighborhood near the fairgrounds, was established in 1991.

Haig now is overseeing the reestablishment of the Kawana Community Garden. It once was at Kawana School but lost its space and is now being revived near the new Kawana Springs Community Park below Taylor Mountain.

Haig said the city is highly supportive of community gardens.

She said the community plots are particularly helpful to lower-income families who may live in apartments and smaller units and don’t have space for a home vegetable garden.

She has a little urban farm on her 6,000-square-foot city lot.

“I grow all of my own greens and fruit. I have four hens. I collect water in barrels on every corner of my house. I’m really involved in doing as much sustainable living as possible,” she said, echoing a sentiment felt by many gardeners in the county, including the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, who teach organic gardening techniques through the U.C. Cooperative Extension.

Unsurprisingly, Sonoma County ranked high when it comes to weather, a key ingredient in the recipe for gardening success. It ranked 22nd in the amount of sunshine in spring, summer and fall.

Sharing the bounty

What the survey couldn’t measure is the vast diversity in the types of gardens and gardening activities in the home of legendary horticulturist Luther Burbank.

Unlike so many parts of the state and country that were overtaken by shopping centers and freeways, Sonoma County still has land to grow on, along with the climate to support growing. But there is also an ethos for sharing.

The Harvest for the Hungry Garden in Santa Rosa has been raising food for food pantries for more than 30 years. Petaluma Bounty produces more than 12,000 pounds of vegetables and fruit on a 3-acre community farm near downtown.

Petaluma resident Cara Storm is partnering with Petaluma Bounty on a new initiative to help even more people grow healthy and fresh food.

Called GetStarted (getstarted.garden), the fledgling nonprofit this summer enlisted 65 volunteer gardeners to grow starts from seeds. More than 300 starter kits containing seed and soil for growing broccoli, lettuce and cilantro were distributed to the volunteers. Last Sunday they returned the tiny plants, which will grow over the next couple of weeks and be distributed for free to families through local food panties at Elim Lutheran Church, the Salvation Army and McDowell Elementary School.

Storm, who came to Petaluma two years ago from San Francisco, started the project with her friend, Susan Duncan, an avid gardener in the East Bay.

Duncan came up with the idea after finding herself this spring with far more zucchini starts than she could use. It came to her that the pandemic-inspired boom in home gardening could be harnessed to help lower-income members of the community.

“The idea is simple and powerful — leveraging existing resources and skill sets of local gardeners to grow extra plants for gardeners on a limited income,” said Suzi Grady, director of Petaluma Bounty. “By creating a network of gardeners to grow a few extra starts, we can expand others’ ability to grow their own food and start a deeper conversation of how to help one another. This is an idea that can take root in any community.”

Storm said she was amazed by the level of enthusiasm for gardening when she moved to Petaluma.

“It’s a neighbor-to-neighbor program that activates home gardeners who want to do something positive,” Storm said. “To do something good during the pandemic and share both the joys of growing your own food and eating your own food. There’s also the hope that families and especially kids will become more excited about eating fresh, nutritious produce because they’ve grown it with their own hands.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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