A Growing Idea

Professor shows Las Vegas the way to cheap, safe food through blossoming community garden program

Before she became one of the top gardening experts in Las Vegas, Angela O’Callaghan was a social worker in a rough stretch of Boston, helping single homeless women and AIDS patients. She was 44 when she went back to school to get a master’s degree and Ph.D. in horticulture from Cornell. Soon after she finished, she learned that the University of Nevada, Reno was looking for someone with experience in both horticulture and social work. Her second career was born.

As associate professor with the university, O’Callaghan now oversees an ambitious community garden program through that school’s Cooperative Extension here in Las Vegas. Although she’d never imagined she’d end up in a metropolis in the Mojave Desert, it’s proven to be the perfect lab for her combined talents. “This is the best gig anyone could possibly have,” she says.

When she began the program there were only a few such gardens. Now there are 60 school gardens (mostly at the elementary level) and five community gardens (mostly for low-income seniors) with two more in planning.

The Mojave doesn’t seem like a garden- friendly place, but “if you get direct light in the morning or early afternoon,” she says, “you can grow just about anything.”

Lately, more and more people are calling O’Callaghan’s office (222-3130) to find out about gardening classes. The extension is considering starting a demonstration garden at Floyd Lamb Park and Meadows Senior Housing. It also received a USDA grant to teach low-income residents to grow herbs on their window ledges and to use them in healthful dishes.

On a recent April morning, master gardeners were at work weeding the community garden at the Archie Grant Senior Homes near Cashman Field. The garden doesn’t look like much now—most are covered in protective mulch—but last summer these plots produced corn, squash, pumpkin, tomatoes, chilies, eggplant and more. In the fall, gardeners grew broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beets and carrots. Gardeners and residents grew so much produce that they donated the 1,500-pound surplus. “They were giving stuff away hand over fist,” says Elaine Fagin, the community gardens coordinator.

The biggest challenge is not only getting past people’s hesitations about gardening in the desert, but finding land that can be used, says O’Callaghan, whose extension enters into partnerships with landowners. “The next thing we really need to do is see what parts of town people want to establish gardens in, and then see what usable land is there.”

O’Callaghan sees three forces driving the growing interest in community gardening. One is environmental consciousness. “We have to be doing something a little more green,” she says. “We can’t keep shipping food from Argentina or Texas or even California. We can’t keep polluting the air. We have to figure out how we’re going to survive on the planet.”

The second are food scares. Every time E. coli turns up in spinach or lettuce, for example, people become more interested in growing their own produce.

The third, of course, is the recession, as Las Vegans look to stretch their dollars.

O’Callaghan points to research that suggests that people who plant gardens eat more vegetables. “It’s something you find is very enjoyable. It pulls you out of yourself and into a natural world.”

Lastly, it may help residents put down roots. “If you feel like you have a certain level of stability,” O’Callaghan says, “putting in a garden is a testament to ‘This is where I want to live.’”

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