Walking through the sprawling vegetable garden that is CommonWealth Urban Farms just a few miles away from downtown Oklahoma City, Elia Woods can’t help but bend a knee every now and then to sample the fruit of her labor. A small nibble of a pea shoot or a spinach leaf brings a smile to her sunkissed face.
“It’s a powerful thing,” she said of eating the food she grows herself. “There’s a deep disconnect that happens when you go to the grocery store and grab some food or pick up fast food and there’s a deep sense of connection and satisfaction that comes with being closer to your food source.”
The garden is a combination of a backyard and an empty lot that takes up about one-seventh of an acre near the corner of Olie St. and N.W. 32nd St. It doesn’t look like much from the street, but walk past the small storage shed at the edge of the property and you see row after row of cultivated soil in different stages of use. Some rows look ready to be harvested while others are just barely sprouting produce that will be ready in early spring and others are being fed by winter cover crop.
Woods started the idea of CommonWealth Urban Farms in December 2010 and began planting the following fall. By April 2012, she had successfully started a program of community supported agriculture, or CSA. She planted and tended to vegetables in the urban garden and grew a membership base of 25 to 30 families paying about $10 per week to pick up a weekly bag of the fresh produce.
This spring, she’s preparing to take a year off from the traditional CSA model for some research and development of the business and to educate the public more about the benefits of home gardening. There are many ways to get involved with CommonWealth that range from attending a garden school on Saturday mornings to purchasing produce and flowers grown at the garden.
Before the idea of CommonWealth really took hold, Woods had a long history with gardening. She was a home gardener for about 25 years before started volunteering at another Oklahoma City CSA, Guilford Gardens. Her friend Kamala Gamble had started the garden about a decade prior and was willing to teach Woods all about the business of growing and selling produce in an urban setting. “I didn’t start off wanting to sell vegetables, I just wanted to learn more,” Woods said. “Before I knew it, I was being hired to manage that CSA program.”
Her first true passion was art and although she’d been a studio artist for many years, she reached a point where she wanted a change of pace.
“The art was becoming more and more about the garden and I just sort of tipped over the top and went full on at the garden,” she said.
This year, Woods is taking a bit of a different approach to the CSA model to give herself a year of less time harvesting and selling vegetables and more time researching and developing. She’s asking CSA members to join what she’s calling a Pollinator’s Circle to contribute to this year of research. Members of the Circle will pay $500 for the year to contribute to the future growth of CommonWealth. That money will still allow them to have a bag of fresh produce every week but they’ll have to harvest it themselves from the garden. The cost of the Circle membership also gives unlimited access to 30 weeks of gardening school classes led by Woods.
The gardening school isn’t just open to these members, though. The classes will be hosted from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. every Saturday morning for 30 weeks. Each class will cover a different gardening topic. The public is welcome to purchase every class for $200 or pay $10 per class. Attendees who stay after class and volunteer for two hours can enjoy the class at no cost.
Woods welcomes all children to attend the gardening school and volunteer in the garden under the supervision of their parents. She’s found most older elementary school students and middle school students to be very fast learners in the garden and valuable workers. Volunteers at the garden do a variety of tasks including planting, harvesting, sifting compost and pulling weeds.
Whether they’re helping at their gardens at home or at CommonWealth, Woods said she believes having kids participate in growing their own food is a profound and beneficial experience. She’s found the young volunteers enjoy learning new growing skills and having a taste now and again, too.
“The best of the best of the best experience,” she said, “is when kids come over and ask, ‘please can I eat some more greens?’”
Each 30-minute garden school course will be hands-on and offer practical advice to people starting home gardens. Woods hopes to see more and more people take an interest in growing their own food.
“I know from personal experience how being in the garden has affected me,” she said. “Growing my own food, it’s changed me in a way I’m really grateful for and I assume the same benefits will be happening for other people as they become gardeners or local food eaters or both.”
Woods doesn’t use chemicals or fertilizers in her garden and shows home growers through her garden school how to do the same. She will teach gardeners how to keep soil biologically sound through natural methods and share her own trial and error experiences to get others on the road to success early.
For a list of other topics Woods will cover in the weekly gardening school, visit the garden online at www.commonwealthurbanfarms.com.