Building a Local Food System: Dave Nuetzel and Blatchley Community Gardens


Dave Nuetzel, right, helps build a memorial garden bed for longtime Blatchley Community Gardens supporter Kathy Swanberg.

(Editor’s Note: The Sitka Local Foods Network’s Bulldog on Baranof intern this summer, Claire Chang, is writing the Building a Local Food System series of articles about Sitkans working to improve food security. This is the third article of the series.)

BlatchleyCommunityGardenSignDave Nuetzel has held the role of lead gardener at Blatchley Community Gardens since 2007. Nuetzel grew up outside of Cleveland, and he toured around the country on a two-year road trip after he graduated from college. At the end of the trip, he wound up in Anchorage. In 2005, he followed his partner, who came to Sitka to work at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, and he has lived here ever since. With a background in special education, he originally worked for the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), and he now works for Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL).

The Blatchley Community Gardens, located behind Sitka’s middle school on what used to be a gravel terrace, started in 2000 as a project of Sitka Community Schools. When Sitka Community Schools lacked the staff to run the garden, Nuetzel took on his role as lead gardener. This year the garden has transitioned from Sitka Community Schools to become a program of Blatchley Middle School. The community garden consists of about fifty garden plots, approximately 6-by-12-feet each. It is personal-use garden, although it does contain a few communal plots of plants such as mint, rhubarb, and flowers. Gardeners pay for the square footage of a plot, and Nuetzel explained that the community garden particularly appeals to people who live in apartments, on boats, or in houses with yards that receive little sunlight.

MiddleOfBlatchleyCommunityGardenAs someone who “has always liked to fix things and learn new skills,” Nuetzel had small gardens when he was growing up, as well as in college. In addition to his personal plots at the Blatchley Community Gardens, Neutzel says that he has “basically cultivated his whole yard.” Any areas around his house where he is not growing vegetables or flowers contain salmonberry, blueberry, or raspberry plants. Gardening appeals to Nuetzel’s desire to strive for self-sufficiency; he also fishes and forages for beach asparagus for subsistence.

LeaveProduceAloneSignBlatchleyCommunityGardenNuetzel explained that, as lead gardener of Blatchley Community Gardens, maintaining a unified vision for the garden has posed a challenge. At the community garden, each plot represents the gardener’s individual approach to cultivation. Some gardeners devote themselves to experimentation, and they use their plots as a space for attempting to grow one type of vegetable that they have never succeeded in cultivating before. Others are committed to growing a wide variety of plants that they know will yield an ample harvest. Furthermore, gardeners choose to amend the soil in unique ways; while one might opt for buried salmon carcasses, kelp, and ground-up shells, another might rely more heavily on compost and coffee grounds.

An even larger challenge that Nuetzel has faced in his role is coordinating the management of common plots. Dividing up the responsibility of caring for a plot of chard, for example, becomes difficult when gardeners travel schedules and family obligations interfere. Furthermore, trying to ensure that everyone has equal to the resources of common plots, such as the apples from a communal apple tree, can be tricky.

BlatchleyCommunityGardenPicnicTableAndBedsNevertheless, Nuetzel appreciates Blatchley Community Gardens as a space where he and others can experience the tangible results of physical labor. Regular visits to the garden allow him to appreciate how well one can grow food for oneself when one puts in the effort. Nuetzel believes that gardening has grown more popular in Sitka in recent years. He has seen new gardens emerge in yard, and in the future, he would like to see new community gardens established in town. As gardening in the community becomes more popular, he wishes that more people would view gardening as a basic need, not just a hobby.

CherryBlossomsBlatchleyCommunityGarden“At one time, producing food was a requirement for life,” Nuetzel said. “Now, people think that gardening is only something you do if you have lots of ‘extra’ time. But if you provide people with a little bit of guidance and get them invested in the process of gardening, they will value it and treat it like something that is necessary.”

To learn more about Blatchley Community Gardens, go to the Facebook page or contact Dave Nuetzel at