The Gift of Gather

There’s a big heart formation in the trunk of an old mulberry tree on the corner of Heartwood and Thistlewood Drives in South Austin. Under the shade of that tree, neighbors gather this sunny Saturday to reconnect or introduce themselves, eat tacos from the food truck down the street and admire the 28 new garden plots they recently dug and planted with veggies, herbs and flowers. This is the new Heartwood Community Garden, situated on an empty lot across the street from Williamson Creek—one of dozens of empty lots that line the street after the City bought and razed the houses that were most at risk for potentially deadly flooding.

Kathy Kimbrough, a resident of the area since 2010, recalls the last serious flood, in October 2013, that prompted the City buyouts and home demolitions. Her house, along a tributary of the creek, got a few inches of rain, but the houses along Heartwood Drive suffered devastating damage. “Later that day, while taking a break from throwing out ruined items and trying to figure out what to do next, I drove down Heartwood to see how everyone was doing,” says Kimbrough. “It was heartbreaking to see my neighbors and the friendly faces that would wave when we would pass by now in their yards seeing what could be salvaged, what keepsakes would now just become memories.”

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Fast-forward several years, and a newer, post-flood resident of the area, Jessica Sager, saw this heart tree and the sunny space beyond it, and immediately envisioned a garden. “I’m not really that much of a gardener to be quite honest,” she says. “But I saw the space and it needed to be born.” She took this vision and ran with it—starting the process of obtaining permitting and licensing for the community garden in July 2017. Realizing this dream, however, was not easy.

Unlike other community gardens owned by Austin Parks & Recreation, this is Austin’s first-ever community garden in a 25-year floodplain, and because the City’s Watershed Protection Department owns the land, Sager had to navigate the red tape associated with the lack of process and funding. But being the first has its rewards: The process workflow that has come out of the project will help others expedite creating their own gardens in the future. And in a fast-growing, increasingly flood-prone Austin, there will likely be plenty of opportunities. “It’s highlighting a need in the community—how do we make this land useful and meaningful? I want to make this process easier for Average Joe citizens,” Sager says.

Whether new to the ’hood or here for 25 years, homeowner or renter, newbie gardener or master green thumb, neighbors have stepped up to help Sager make it official. Kimbrough, who set up the group’s Facebook page, helps with membership, for example. Others help with finances, technical design, gardening know-how and, of course, muscle. “That’s what’s been so great about all this—folks took small chunks and we made it happen,” Kimbrough says.

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After talking to several neighbors who’ve remained through the floods, the buyouts and the demolitions, it’s clear that a lot of the energy and commitment being poured into the garden comes from a place of healing. “This area where we dug in, where we once again came together as a community, is special,” says Kimbrough. “It’s symbolism that something good can come from something painful; that destructive waters also give way to nourishing rain.”

And for those who didn’t witness the floods and ensuing events firsthand, Heartwood Community Garden is a welcome addition that simply feels good. “Most of us go home and stay in our houses at night, and it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for people to know their neighbors, despite the appearance of living in such a highly connected world,” says Sager. “I think we are all hungry for connection and community, and our neighborhoods need spaces—like gardens—that draw us out and draw us in, together.”

By Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Darby Kendall

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