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The Olympian

Take a stroll on the Ninth Avenue sidewalk behind and across the street from the Olympia Timberland Regional Library between Adams and Franklin streets.

The first thing that stands out is a converted gum ball machine filled with chicken feed. Put in your 25 cents and you receive a handful of grain to feed the chickens that live in the Fertile Guild Commons, a demonstration site for sustainable living in the heart of Olympia.

The commons is a collection of gardens, pathways, landscapes and building demonstration projects under the stewardship of the Fertile Ground Community Center and the South Sound Chapter of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild. Together, they take up half a city block and include the guild headquarters known as EcoHouse, the Fertile Ground Community Center and the Fertile Ground Guesthouse, a bed-and-breakfast owned and operated by Karen Nelson and Gail O’Sullivan.

If chickens aren’t your thing, you’re welcome to pick a handful of fruits and berries — everything from Asian pears and Cascade cherries to golden raspberries and strawberries — growing along the sidewalk.

The community invitation extends into the garden where flowers, vegetables and herbs grow in raised beds built out of recycled wood and tree limbs.

In exchange for produce and flowers, community members can leave a donation or volunteer some time and labor to weed and mulch the garden.

The commons is a new space for urban agriculture, green remodeling workshops and community building. But the garden has been around since Earth Day 1999 when Nelson and O’Sullivan, with the help of about 20 friends, began converting what was a vacant city lot overgrown with blackberries into an organic garden.

“This morning we had 10 kids and parents in the garden, waiting for the library to open,” Nelson said. “Most people are grateful that it’s here. It provides a lot of interaction with the public.”

Nelson likes to call the sidewalk a “pedestrian food corridor” and would like nothing better than to see Olympia neighborhoods lined with them.

Fueled by a city neighborhood grant, plans for the Fertile Guild Commons include a new entry cut through a hedge at the corner of Ninth and Adams, not to mention a couple of tractor seats for kids and parents to sit in while they watch and feed the chickens.

“We want to make something fun and whimsical,” Nelson said.

Back to the gum ball machine: It’s the most profitable venture in the commons. A $20 bag of chicken feed nets $40 and helps the chickens lay about 70 eggs, O’Sullivan said.

To receive the city grant money, the commons needs to raise matching funds, noted Chris Van Daalen, education coordinator for the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild.

If you missed the Green and Bluegrass Jamboree yesterday, several more fundraising events are scheduled in the commons this summer, including a Cajun Carnival from 4-10 p.m. July 23. For more information on upcoming events, visit

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