While mowing the vast fields surrounding St. John’s Episcopal Church, Hal Hughes often smiles to himself when he sees someone strolling along the spiraling pathway within the labyrinth garden.
“I see a lot of familiar faces, but I also see people from the neighborhoods walking the gardens with their dogs and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere,”says Hughes, a member of the church and of the steering committee for the Labyrinth Community Garden in North Austin. “We’re in a very diverse area so I’m happy the garden is starting to reflect that diversity.”
A civil engineer by trade and a lifelong gardener, Hughes saw so much potential in the five acres of empty fields. So in 2014, he and several members of the steering committee
launched a community garden to bring both churchgoers and North Austin residents together in an organic way.
“You don’t have to be affiliated with the church,” Hughes says. “The garden is open to the entire community. Part of the intent was to provide a meditative, contemplative space for everyone to enjoy.”
Early into the project, Hughes and his colleagues realized they were entering a labyrinth of astronomical expenses, grant writing and municipal red tape. To give an example, Hughes pointed to a basic $400 gardening bed. “The wood alone costs $300, then you have to buy the screws and the dirt,” he says while walking alongside rows of wooden beds filled with fresh soil. “It starts adding up, but when we get the grants in, little by little, we’re able to make it happen.”
Anyone who chats with Hughes about the costs of spigots and water utilities may have a newfound appreciation for those who create these communal green spaces. Half the battle, Hughes notes, was working with the city of Austin to waive water tap fees, which amounted to roughly $1,500 in savings. This involved stacks of paperwork and countless follow-up phone calls.
“The phone calls and forms went on for months,” Hughes adds. “And then we had years of grant writing ahead of us to bring the garden into fruition.”
The next challenge was securing grant money for the still-growing garden. Thanks to a referral from the Sustainable Food Center,Hughes and his committee members discovered the Texas Grants Resource Center (TGRC), a hub of grant-writing resources within the DDCE’s Community Engagement Center. With help from TGRC director Ellen Moutos-Lee, Hughes and his fellow committee member Heather Stettler searched for the best grant opportunities, saving themselves a great deal of time and effort in the process. Since 1962 the TGRC has been serving as a bridge between the grant-seeking and grant-making communities, offering one-on-one guidance from experienced professionals. The center also offers professional development workshops and seminars throughout the year.
“Ellen has been helping me this whole time,” Hughes says. “She’s familiar with grants, so she can tell me which ones to invest my time and energy in applying for. There are so many grants out there, so to have someone help me sift through it all was an enormous help.”
Not long after submitting their first proposal in the fall of 2014, Hughes and Stettler received their first $500 grant from ScottsMiracle-Gro. More grants and donations came through, allowing the garden to launch in 2017.
Now with 25 beds rented out and newly planted trees provided by Tree Folks, the garden is in full working order. The idea, Hughes says, is to provide a space where both plants and friendships can grow.
“It’s a way to break down barriers,” Hughes says. “The best way to know people is to work with them. At church you can sit next to someone in a pew and never interact with them. But in the garden, you’re out there together digging and setting fence posts while talking and building relationships.”
The next big development will be a gazebo, where growers can gather for gardening classes and barbecue parties. A bee apiary has been recently added and the group hopes to hold beekeeping seminars in the near future.
“It would be wonderful to have a focal point in the garden where we can share a cold drink on a hot day or have an educational session on organic gardening or beekeeping,” says Stettler, who has been working alongside Hughes and other committee members on bringing the garden to life.
Unlike Hughes, who is well known for his colorful yard of ornamental flowers and trickling water fountains, Stettler has no place to garden in her condo complex. She—and many of her fellow community gardeners—enjoy having a dedicated space to connect with nature.
“When my parents were younger, they had a different set of institutions that created social cohesion and a sense of community,” Stettler adds. “These community gardens are replacing some of those shared spaces that have faded away over time, providing a sense of place and home.”