Austin’s Sunshine Community Gardens provides a space for everyone to grow

Prospective gardeners – whether they are 9 or 90 – are welcomed to join.

By Breze ReyesDecember 5, 2023 12:54 pm,

Sunshine Community Gardens is a three-acre plot of greenery within Austin’s growing concrete jungle.

As you enter the garden, you might smell wafts of basil, sage and rosemary traveling through the morning air. The chicken coop is always lively, and if you’re there early enough, you might just hear the rooster crow.

The garden is lush and full of life: birds are chirping, monarch butterflies are fluttering around, and all are enjoying what the garden has to offer.

Lucille Pulliam, who just turned 90, is one of the hundreds of gardeners who rent a garden bed.

“This is my happy place. We live in an apartment, and we do have a balcony, but there’s too much wind there to really garden,” Pulliam said. “And watching plants grow has always been a joy to me. So here I not only get to watch plants grow, but I get to be with other gardeners who enjoy being here.”

Breze Reyes / Texas Standard

Lucille Pulliam poses with her raised bed at Sunshine Community Gardens.

The garden is meant to be as welcoming to as many people as possible. Garden president Iris Slevin says it’s been this way since its opening in 1979.

“The goal was to bring a space for community gardening in an organic way. And to bring a joint location where people could come for community, for food – just be outside, be in the outdoors and get your hands in the dirt,” Slevin said.

The land is leased from the nearby Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Accessibility has long been part of Sunshine’s mission.

Breze Reyes / Texas Standard

Sunshine Community Gardens president Iris Slevin tends to her garden as the seasons change from fall to winter.

Pulliam walks to the garden with her husband. The accessibility beds are beneficial to her because there is no need to bend down to plant vegetables or water the bed.

“I have problems with balance because I’ve had strokes, and so it would be difficult for me to get down and garden on the ground,” Pulliam said. “But here, not only do I have a raised bed where I can stand and do it, but the water is right attached. It’s all so convenient. And it’s also about a 15 minute walk from where we live. So I get my exercise and I get to do my gardening.”

This past summer, the board at Sunshine expanded the number of raised beds from three to ten. This accessibility garden is named the Vernon Barker Memorial Garden in honor of a previous member of Sunshine.

Breze Reyes / Texas Standard

The raised accessibility garden beds of Sunshine Community Gardens.

Garden vice president Marsha Riti works with volunteers at the different gardens.

“We have people of retirement age all the way to elementary schoolers like my daughter Maple. She’s eight and she has a garden in the children’s garden,” Riti said.

Her daughter Maple Norwood has grown different vegetables and flowers in her own bed.

“There’s not a lot of big things that can grow in a 3-by-3 foot garden, but once, in my mother’s garden, we once grew a maybe 3 foot zucchini,” Norwood said. “I learned how to water plants and what variety of carrots there are.”

Breze Reyes / Texas Standard

Both mother and daughter said they’ve learned a lot from participating in the garden.

“What I get out of gardening is a communion with nature and an understanding of seasonality that I think a lot of people in our culture don’t have,” Riti said. “Because we go from one air conditioned space to another air conditioned space, and it’s very easy to forget that there are seasons.”

If a gardener produces more than they can take home and use, they give it to friends or donate it. That’s another part of Sunshine’s mission. Riti says they even have garden space set aside specifically for donating fresh produce.

“Normally, like for a year’s worth of produce, we’re donating in the hundreds and hundreds of pounds because the summer months are very, very productive,” Riti said

Gardeners also come to Sunshine to be with other people, to learn and experience the earth together.

Breze Reyes / Texas Standard

Volunteers at Sunshine Community Gardens work together to cover the greenhouse.

“The friendships are the best part. There’s 200 plus personalities. It’s a community. That’s the way it goes,” Slevin said. “There are some friendships that go back for decades, and always a little competition in there – friendly competition. You definitely go to the garden and budget extra time because you’re going to stop and you’re going to talk to people. The friendships and relationships really go way back.”

Pulliam has also made a few friends throughout her time at Sunshine.

“Two of the important friends are Iris, who is the current president, and Marsha. I was admiring her bed of zinnias last spring, and she invited me to pick them any time I wanted. So I would when I would come to the garden. I would pick myself a fresh bouquet, which was really nice,” Pulliam said.

Sunshine Community Gardens might be a unique space for Pulliam and her friends – but it’s not the only one. Head over to the closest garden near you.

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