Janeth Sotelo doesn’t buy garlic at the grocery store. She doesn’t buy onions or tomatillos. And she definitely, absolutely doesn’t buy tomatoes. Why would she, when she can grow her own that taste even better?
Sotelo was a total novice when she started her plot at the community garden at Bethel Lutheran Church in Brush Prairie in 2013. Now, the Orchards woman is a wizard in the garden — and there’s nothing better than reaping the rewards of your labor, she said, especially when those rewards come in the form of a fresh summer tomato.
“The tomatoes are delicious, with a little salt and pepper,” Sotelo said, walking through the plots of dirt Saturday with fellow proud green-thumber Oscar Rivera.
In some places, the earth was just starting to show the evidence of the fruits and vegetables springing up underneath.
Sotelo and Rivera are among the 15 people who currently take advantage of the community garden program at Bethel Lutheran, located at 12919 N.E. 159th St. The church charges $15 a year for use of one 10-by-20-foot plot, just enough to cover the cost of water, said Dean Sutera, who started the program in 2011 when he was the pastor at the church. The garden has 28 full-size plots, plus a few odd planter boxes.
“This has been his lifeblood for this church for so many years,” said Ron Gullickson, president of the church’s council.
The program has since taken off. While initially designed as a place where congregants could grow produce, it’s now open to the broader community. Many of the gardeners come from a neighboring trailer complex, where plots of fertile soil would otherwise be hard to come by. Others, like Sotelo and Rivera, came from Iglesia De Dios De La Profecia, the Spanish-speaking church across the street.
During most years, the gardeners would be planning a harvest celebration for September, a big community picnic that draws congregants from both churches. This year, with COVID-19 restricting large gatherings, they’re not sure what that harvest celebration might look like.
But that doesn’t stop them from putting in the work now. Rows and rows of hot peppers, onions, beets, scallions, strawberries, potatoes, tomatillos, black corn, tomatoes, basil and garlic were poking through the earth on Saturday.
Just the act of growing, and of growing with one another, is a force for good in normal times. But especially right now, gardening together offers a sense of solidarity that’s becoming harder to come by.
“Everyone learns from each person,” Sutera said. “That’s the idea. It’s not just a garden, it’s a community garden, and it’s what forms community between the people, which is really important. We wouldn’t have gotten to know these people if we didn’t have a community.”