By Helen Cordes
Photography courtesy of Lori Ferris
Round Rock has been bustin’ out all over in recent years, with folks flocking to the booming burg north of Austin at record rates. But while Austin’s growth has included the formation of many community gardens, bustling Round Rock had enjoyed not a single one—much to the chagrin of Lori and Jeff Ferris. When they found their backyard too shady to grow veggies, they looked for a community garden and found none. So they took matters—and garden tools—into their own hands.
“So that’s how Unity Park got started,” says Lori, as she surveys the verdant new garden plots on Gattis School Road. In less than a year, Unity Park has blossomed from a bare field to a vibrant community hub that produces fresh vegetables for a local food pantry, as well as plenty of camaraderie among Round Rockians hungry for a food-gardening community. “That’s the best thing about this garden,” Lori says. “It’s a place for people to draw together and share their knowledge and have a great time!”
Unity Park grew quickly, thanks to the sustained work and savvy planning of the Ferrises and others. A grant application to Fiskars, a tool and scissors company, bested nearly a thousand applicants to garner a $1,000 bounty for garden supplies. The garden’s great location in a sunny field near a stream comes from an agreement with the adjacent Baha’i Faith meeting center, whose members offered to lease the land for $1 a year. When the gardeners needed to install a fence, they came up with the idea to solicit a $30 donation for each fence section. Donors were then honored with personalized signs on each fence panel. “We got enough fence donations from businesses and individuals in just a few days,” Lori says.
For the Ferrises, the garden is just the beginning of the sustainable growing and eating goals they hope to achieve through their group’s organization, the Neighborhood Harvest Project. They’ve already offered classes in vegetable gardening, seed saving and solar-oven cooking, and hope to offer regular workshops, movies and more social events, like the recent potluck and kite-flying party. They’re planning a children’s garden and improved access to the peach and plum trees on the property. “We want to put up a clothesline so that people can let their laundry dry as they garden,” says Lori. And they’ll urge apartment managers to offer a garden plot as an amenity for renters who lack access to a growing spot.
From the beginning, the Unity Park garden has fed those in need. All of the gardeners donate 10 percent of their crops to the Round Rock Area Serving Center, and two lush plots are devoted solely to produce for the food pantry. “Right now we have black-eyed peas, green beans, peppers and long beans,” says Lori. “Our winter garden crops were also popular at the Service Center.”
Fresh-grown garden goodies have created converts across the board, including Sheyenne Alvarez’s formerly veggie-resistant young sons, who now eat cherry tomatoes straight off the vines. “Everything tastes so much better from the garden,” Alvarez notes. “Plus, you know exactly where your food comes from.”
Liz Houdek started a plot with her son, Mike, a JAVA engineer who’d never gardened before. Now he has transformed his backyard into a garden mecca with six raised vegetable beds, rain barrels, blackberries and grapevines.
Best of all, the growers get to share gardening wisdom that’s particularly helpful to beginners. “My parents never gardened, so it’s so great to get all the information,” says newbie gardener Alvarez. And Ishkhanoohie Clayton treasures all of the tips for her first-ever plot brimming with tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers and watermelon. “Our girls love being out here, too,” she says.
Unity Park also holds a special place in the heart of Joe Knapp, a 95-year-old veteran gardener who digs the soil alongside his daughter, JoAnne Ringer. “Dad loves gardening, but he has to use a walker, so the group built him this,” she says, showing off a waist-high raised bed that allows Knapp to garden without having to bend over.
Ringer happily shares gardening lore gleaned from a life’s worth of experience that began in her dad’s backyard plot in Philadelphia. Her summer bounty includes five varieties of tomatoes, cantaloupe, zucchini, romaine, radishes and beans—many sown from seeds traded among the gardeners. “I like to get out here early on Sunday mornings,” says Ringer. “To me, this is my church.”
Unity Park Community Garden, neighborhoodharvestproject.org