Even 10 years ago, there were few places in the country where you’d find a 20-acre parcel of abandoned farmland right in the middle of a city. Charlotte Valbert of Tacoma, WA, knew that the abandoned blueberry farm just down the street from her house was something very special.
Starting in 1999, with the help of dozens of volunteers and a herd of goats, Charlotte has transformed that abandoned, weed-choked blueberry farm into a 20-acre public park. It’s virtually the only public green space in her neighborhood of low- to moderate-income housing. But this new park is more than green. It’s actually blue! Those 4,000 mature blueberry plants are still there…and blueberries are free for the picking. “People are always asking: Is it free to pick the blueberries?” she said. “I say, 'of course it’s free, it’s a public park. We’re just unique, because we have blueberries.'”
To honor Charlotte for her vision, leadership and perseverance in creating the park, Gardener’s Supply Co. has presented her with a Garden Crusader Award for 2008.
The farm was planted with blueberries in 1940, and it was operated for three decades as a berry farm. In 1968, the Tacoma School District bought the land to build a high school, but the school was never built. Eventually the local parks district took over the land.
Meanwhile, the once productive blueberry bushes were slowly engulfed in blackberry vines, Scotch broom and other invasive plants.
The park is tucked into a diverse neighborhood of 660 residences called East Tacoma. Local residents had been picking blueberries on the abandoned farm for over 30 years. They would bring their own 15-foot ladders to get the ripe berries from the 20-foot tall blueberry “trees”. Though sadly neglected, the bushes continued to produce berries, but they were only at the very top where the branches could reach the sun.
“People in this neighborhood have been picking these berries for generations,” says Charlotte. “Many of the older residents earned pocket money that way.”
When Charlotte first moved to the neighborhood 21 years ago, she and her husband would walk through the fields as a cut-through to reach shops on the other side of the farm. But by 1999, even that wasn’t possible. “You couldn’t even get off the curb, that is how overgrown it was,” she said.
Charlotte’s idea for renovating the park started to gain momentum about nine years ago, when she met with a group of neighbors and the parks district. The parks district wanted to build ball fields. Charlotte envisioned something entirely different. “Luckily, a new parks director came in and was open to the idea,” she said. “As long as I made it happen!”
Charlotte knew that to clear all that land and renovate the blueberries, she would need a lot of help. She consulted with experts and made a plan. First on the list was dealing with the invasive plants. They needed to be cut down, dug out and hauled away.
“As for the blueberry plants, I was told that if we cut them down to about 12” high, they would start producing again in three years,” she said. So, Charlotte started, one plant at a time.
She organized the first volunteer workday in May of 1999. Since then, 2,129 volunteers have worked 9,138 hours. And all but 600 of the 4,000 plants have been trimmed. Over the years she has applied for—and received—a number of grants, including one to hire professional tree trimmers to cut down the bushes and chip them. “That way we can just put the wood chips right in the path as mulch,” she said.
Twice a week, Charlotte visits a manufacturing plant to haul away heavy duty cardboard. “The company used to pay to have it taken away,” she said. “Now we put it down as mulch between the rows of blueberries and everyone is happy.” On top of the cardboard, she and the volunteers spread wood chips that they collect from local landscapers.
A couple of years ago, she came across a super-efficient way to clear underbrush: goats. Twice now, a local goat farmer has brought in 220 goats to work. The farmer put up temporary fencing to keep the goats in certain areas of the park.
“The goats would eat all of the underbrush and as many of the blueberry plants as they could reach,” she said. “That way all we had to do was go in and remove the rest of it.”
Not surprisingly, the goats have been popular. Charlotte says, “The most frequently asked questions are: ‘Where is Blueberry Park?’, ‘What are your hours?’ and ‘When are the goats coming back?’” she said.
Thanks to Charlotte, 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.”
Charlotte is 80 years old, but still as engaged as ever in her community. “I’m retired, so now I have nothing to do but run the park, go to meetings and make noise about things I care about,” she said. With endless opportunities and challenges at every turn, Charlotte could easily be busy 100 hours a week. But don’t worry about Charlotte. She’s doing exactly what she wants to do.
“I only do what I want,” she says. “If someone wants me to take something on and I don’t want to I just say no.” She has applied this thinking to her volunteer network as well, and finds it’s best to manage volunteers by letting them do what they want to do.
“I tell them what I want to have done, and then they go off and do what they want,” she said. “If I had wanted them to pull Scotch broom, but they really want to pull fireweed, well then they should pull fireweed. My thing will get done another time. I run a pretty loose ship, but I’ve had to learn how to do that.”
With the help of all of those volunteers, Blueberry Park has become exactly what Charlotte envisioned ten years ago. “It’s just a marvelous use of open space,” she said. “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.”
And all the better if there are acres of blueberries, free for the picking!
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