Earlier this fall, I got to spend a couple hours with one of our 2008 Garden Crusaders, Charlotte Valbert of Tacoma, Washington. Charlotte won this year’s award for restoration, in honor of her efforts to convert a 20-acre abandoned farm—just down the road from her house—into a community park.
This new park hadn’t been just any old farm and the park certainly isn’t any old park. It’s a park filled with blueberry plants—4,000 of them to be exact!
The story of Blueberry Park begins in 1940 when the land was planted with blueberries to create a large fruit farm. The berry farm operated successfully for almost 30 years. Then, in 1968, the farm closed and the land was sold to the Tacoma School District to build a new high school. Due to a number of factors, the school was never built, and for the next 30 years the land and the blueberry plants became slowly engulfed by blackberries, Scotch broom and other invasive species.
Though sadly neglected, the blueberry bushes continued to grow and produce. Local residents took advantage of the bounty, filling their buckets with free blueberries all summer long. Many would bring their own ladders to reach the berries, which were now clustered at the top of 20-foot tall “blueberry trees.” Charlotte told me, “People in this neighborhood have been picking these berries for generations. Many of the older residents earned pocket money that way.”
When Charlotte first moved to East Tacoma, 21 years ago, she and her husband would walk through the fields to reach shops on the other side of the farm. But by 1999, that wasn’t possible. “You couldn’t even get off the curb, that is how overgrown the land had become,” she said.
Charlotte felt strongly that this land, and the blueberry plants on it, were a community asset far too valuable to waste. The area is surrounded by 660 single family homes; thousands of adults and children without access to open space. Charlotte also knew that to clear the land and renovate the blueberry plants, she would need lots of help.
After consulting with a range of experts, Charlotte made a plan. First on the list was cutting down, digging out and hauling away the invasive plants. “As for the blueberry plants”, she said, “I was told that if we cut them down to about 12” high, they would re-grow and be producing again in three years.” Charlotte organized the first volunteer workday in May of 1999, and since then, 2,129 volunteers have logged 9,138 hours, and as of 2008 all but 600 of the 4,000 plants have been cleaned out and pruned back.
Thanks to Charlotte’s dedicated attention and boundless enthusiasm, Blueberry Park has become a region-wide gathering place. “People come from all over to the park. There are plenty of berries for everyone, and great diversity in the ethnic groups of our blueberry pickers,” she says. “When you’re out there picking, it’s a chorus of different languages. I think people need to be continually reminded that open space is necessary for mental health. It’s so important to have a place that is quiet, where kids can run around in nature. It’s just a marvelous use of open space,” she said.
Charlotte is the busiest and most energetic 80-year old person I’ve ever met. Driving around the neighborhood with her, touring the park, and listening in on animated conversations with friends and neighbors (all of which happened in a two-hour visit!) I started to get a sense of what a remarkable woman she is. We salute Charlotte and honor the time, energy and creativity she has provided to fuel the creation of Tacoma’s Blueberry Park.