Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, of a garden, in his 1854 collection of stories Mosses from an Old Manse: “I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation.” A century and a half later, set against the desert backdrop of San Diego, rather than the damp of Salem, Massachusetts, local, avid gardeners are just as proud of their work. A handful of them, representing six public gardens throughout the city, sat down to talk plants, soil, and, most importantly, the bond forged between their communities and gardening.
HAROLD E. SMERDU COMMUNITY GARDEN
LOCATION: 250 Laguna Drive, Carlsbad
PLOTS: 48, 20’ x 30’
ELIGIBILITY: Must be a Carlsbad resident to get first priority
WAITING LIST: 80 people
SOIL TYPE: Clay amended by gardeners individually
PLANTS: Vegetables and flowers, no tall trees
Twenty-five years ago, Harold Smerdu had a plan: to bring a community garden to the city of Carlsbad. After talks with city hall officials, a vacant parcel on Laguna Drive was named the site, and the garden began to take shape.
Hugging the slight grade of hilly Laguna Drive, the garden is across from the town library and in plain view of anyone taking a stroll up or down the street.
A sandy walkway divides the garden. Plots lie on either side behind a mishmash of fencing, as the gardeners are responsible for enclosing their spaces. In the background, palm trees wave in the wind against a backdrop of blue sky.
Vegetables of all types are in the process of ripening here; greens, peas, even artichokes. Cacti are interspersed between plants, aloe and agave, too. Flowers, in vibrant pinks, oranges, and yellows edge the plots, adding a dash of color.
The garden is co-headed by City of Carlsbad Parks and Recreation supervisor Michael Bliss and his colleague Connie Kessler.
“It’s pretty pain free,” he says, of running the garden, as he sits on a picnic bench just outside it. “The gardeners that come out here really love what they’re doing, and many of these people have had these plots for years.”
The turnover isn’t high; there are currently 80 people on the waiting list, which, Bliss says, dates back to 2006.
“I would say the average [time] could probably work out to be about ten years, easy,” Bliss says. “We’ve had some gardeners who have been here a long time. We’ve got 80 people on the waiting list, so people know, ‘Yeah, I want to garden,’ but you put them on a list and tell them ‘Oh, you’re the 81st…’ It’s tough. It shows you how popular it is. It’s a shame. It would be nice if it were bigger.”
The city foots the bill for much of the garden, including water and trash pickup, and the Carlsbad parks department spreads the wood chips across the walkway. Whenever needed, an irrigation technician is on call as well. The city spends $200/month, according to Michael Bliss.
“There’s some staff involvement,” Bliss says. “You can’t let it completely go. You have to make sure it stays fairly maintained.”
As for rules, according to Bliss, it’s mostly “common sense stuff. You don’t want to keep a lot of junk in your little garden plot, You want to have it maintained, you want to continue on the upkeep, you don’t want to let it grow over with weeds. Once you have a garden plot, you don’t give it to someone else.”
Generally, he doesn’t have many problems with rule-breakers, and if someone inadvertently steps outside the boundaries, they are usually cooperative. At the time of this writing, there is a problematic tree that Bliss and his team have decided must be removed.
“We’ve just got to talk to the gardener,” he says. “One of the gardeners said, ‘It’s starting to shade my area a little too much,’ and the tree itself is getting to be too big, so we want to make sure we take care of that. We’ve sent her a letter, just letting her know that we’re going to have to take that tree out.”
Aside from that, things are generally quiet around the garden. Bliss has noticed recently that a lot of neighboring cities want to start their own as well.
“I think it’s gotten a lot of press recently, more so because the Obamas in the White House are talking about having a vegetable garden,” he says. “Governor Schwarzenegger is trying to get something started around the mansion called a Victory Garden. People are jumping on the bandwagon — ‘Shoot, if they’ve got one…’ ”
He glances at the apricot tree.
“It’s a great community asset,” he says.
ESCONDIDO COMMUNITY GARDEN
LOCATION: Centre City Parkway between El North Parkway and Mission Ave, Escondido
PLOTS: 80+, 4’ x 20’
DUES: $20/6 months, $30/year
WAITING LIST: 7 or 8
SOIL TYPE: Mushroom compost
PLANTS: Vegetables, fruit, and flowers
The Encinitas Community Garden is hard to miss. It lines the side of Centre City Parkway, a main drag that leads to the 78 freeway, and tall plants and the roof of a red shed are visible from the road.
Cars race along Centre City Parkway as Beth Mercurio, the garden’s founder, sits under a trellis of wisteria.
“[The garden] was an idea that I had because of seeing the City Heights garden,” she says, referring to a now-defunct spot. “They had large, dancing wooden vegetables on the fence outside their garden. I was lost down in San Diego and that’s what I found. And I said, ‘What the heck is this? Let me write the phone number down.’ It started from there. I started contacting people, met a couple of people in the city who were willing to listen…”
Now, the garden, which sits on what Mercurio — her official title is Garden Manager — estimates to be just over two acres of land, is run by a board.
“We have master composters [and] we have gardeners here that just give us their input,” she says. “There are about eight people that run it, and we’re a well-oiled machine at this point. The garden’s been in existence for 15 years. Many of the people on the board have been on the board the whole time.”
The land belongs to the city, Mercurio says, and the Escondido Community Garden leases it from the city for a dollar-a-year type of agreement, which, according to Mercurio, is “periodically [paid] in vegetables.”
“They’re a very big supporter, and I’d like to think that they’re proud of us,” she says. “We feel really, really lucky right now. There’s a great big construction site next door, and that’s going to be a brand-new police and fire station. For most of the gardens that are on public land, when something like that happens, the community garden goes.”
The garden is laid out on a long stretch of land that is bordered on one side by a dead-ending gravel path. “No unauthorized vehicles,” admonishes a sign at the entrance, trying to keep intrusive car traffic to a minimum.
Each plot is lined with gray cinder blocks, some raised higher than others; tilled earth rises in neat rows within them. Some plants are just starting to sprout, while others are getting ready for harvest. They are well and carefully tended. Some gardeners employ creative means for staking and sheltering, for instance, using curved branches to create lattices for their growing vines.
This is, in part, Mercurio points out, due to the differing ethnic backgrounds of the gardeners who work here, many of whom have extensive experience in their home countries.
“We have people from China, from the Philippines, from Iran, from France, from Mexico, so they’re from all over the world,” Mercurio says. “Many languages are spoken out here. We have seniors that are living nearby in the Salvation Army residence, and they are Chinese. So we have a group of Chinese men and women who walk over here each morning and each afternoon, and they’re probably the best gardeners out here.”
The cultural diversity, while a point of pride for the garden, at times causes tensions.
“The garden is a microcosm of the world, and the issues and the problems are the same,” Mercurio says. “People come from different countries, and perhaps those countries notoriously don’t get along, and I find they try to bring that into the garden.”
This was not always easily detected. Mercurio reports that, at times, the origin of a dispute would not be clear until it was pointed out that, perhaps, the individuals involved came from countries that have historically feuded with one another.
“I think the biggest issue is communication, because we have the different languages and the different culture,” she says. “What one person says is not what another person thinks they understand them to say.”
Another issue that has popped up, says Mercurio, is the use of space.
“In a lot of the Asian cultures, you don’t waste space,” she explains. “Space is at a premium, and the whole idea of these paths and these open areas is difficult for some of our Asian gardeners to understand. They tend to want to plant just anywhere. We try to keep rules — you stay inside your plot — and I turn around two days later, and I’ve got plants that are in spots where they’re not supposed to be. That type of thing.”
People garden for different reasons, Mercurio says. “It provides exercise for [people]. It provides mental therapy for those who maybe need a little bit of an oasis, an escape from the rest of the world.”
“And, for some, it’s food that they’re growing to eat tonight.”
NEW ROOTS COMMUNITY FARM
LOCATION: 54th Street and Chollas Parkway, San Diego
DUES: Sliding scale
ELIGIBILITY: 20 plots will be available to the public
WAITING LIST: N/A
SOIL TYPE: Clay, but will be amended with compost/mulch/manure
PLANTS: Fruits and vegetables
The New Roots Community Farm was, at the time of this writing, a project in process [The grand opening was September 10). Just off of Chollas Parkway and 54th Street in City Heights, it’s currently being prepped for an irrigation line, and looks like a cleared lot with scattered tunnels of dug earth.
But, soon, says Amy Lint, Community Development Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, it will be a full-scale organic garden designed to serve the growing refugee population of low-income, urban San Diego. Along with Bilali Muya, who works with the Somali-Bantu Organization, she and her team are laying the groundwork for the garden, which, she estimates, will end up costing around $200,000. The money comes from a surplus at the International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to resettling refugees from all over the world in San Diego, and, with an influx of people arriving from agriculturally centered countries, the need for a garden arose.
“There was some talk about ‘Well, what kind of support could we give this new [population] arriving to the United States? What kind of support could we give them in terms of food or nutrition?’ ” Lint says. “They come from an agrarian society and what they wanted was land [on which] to grow their own food. So we thought, ‘Okay, how would [we] do that? We can’t give people individual farms, they’re all resettled right in City Heights in dense area, but what we could turn this into is more of an urban farm or a community farm.’ So that’s how this project got started.”
To use the land, which is city owned, Lint and the International Rescue Committee had to obtain a three-year permit, which cost $20,000.
The parcel — a little over two acres—will have 80 plots. Each plot will be 600 square feet, enough, Lint says, to grow about 40 percent of a food-stamp budget.
The idea, Lint says, is to create what she calls a “microenterprise,” in which gardeners, who will mostly be recent and not-so-recent refugees from places like Somalia, will be able to grow enough food not only to feed themselves but to sell.
“We try and get people into the job market, and, of course, in this economy right now, it’s even more challenging,” Lint says. “But our organization is a partner in starting the City Heights Farmers Market, so if they’re growing enough food, like small vegetables and such, and they have extra that they can’t eat, they can actually take a small amount to the market.”
Muya, who immigrated from Somalia four years ago, is also a driving force behind the project and plans to have a plot as well. He will, among other things, be growing sukuma wiki, a kale-like vegetable, which he grew in Somalia.
“I’m just going to grow the natural food I’ve been growing my whole life,” he says. “I’ll be helping the refugees who speak Swahili in my community, as well to try and learn the new way of growing in this urban garden…My whole life I have been a farmer. My father, my grandfather [too]. So it’s kind of reminding me that I’m continuing the heritage that I was given.”
The land, while it may appear large for such a project, is actually small for farmers like Muya who, says Lint, could farm ten acres by hand if he had to.
“When I brought my community [here] and showed them this area, they kind of laugh[ed],” he says. “One person said, ‘This is too small for me!’ It’s hard for us to get land. It’s not like it was back home in Africa.”
But, Muya says, having a plot will help his community immensely for a myriad of reasons.
“Most of them don’t work,” he says of the Somali refugees. “It can help them spend their food stamps, like having some fresh veggies [that they can] get from their farm, instead of spending a lot on sale day.”
The garden will be primarily divided between several organizations; 20 plots will go to the Somali-Bantu Organization, 20 to the Union of Pan Asian Communities, and 20 Proyecto Casa Saludables. Additionally, 20 plots will be available for use by other members of the San Diego community at large.
“We’d like to have this as a center for not only growing food for the 80 people who have plots here, but for the general public [as well],” says Lint. “Right now, we’re going to get water rations by June or July. Working with different partners, we can have community-education classes here, where people can learn more about water-saving techniques and composting. And that’s open to the public and free. This is a place where people can see those demonstrations in action and take an outdoor class and just have an afternoon outside and learn.”
OCEAN BEACH COMMUNITY GARDEN
LOCATION: 2351 Soto Street, Ocean Beach
PLOTS: 51,200 square feet, some larger
DUES: $45/6 months up to $50/6 months, depending on plot size
WAITING LIST: 12
SOIL TYPE: Fine sand; amended by gardeners with chicken manure, topsoil, mulches, green sand, bloodmeal, bonemeal, and compost.
PLANTS: Vegetables, fruit, flowers
The Ocean Beach Community Garden is tucked at the foot of Collier Park on Soto Street, just past a storage shed and scattering of picnic tables. Fifty-one plots in all, it covers a considerable space, flowers and vegetables co-mingling, some plots full, others just turning over after a recent harvest.
The roses in the rose garden, while not in full bloom at the time of this writing, cover a lattice-worked trellis, under which sit two benches for rose-viewing or lounging. A few scarecrows, one with the Chargers bolt emblazoned across its head, rise up from the plots, and they seem to work. There is not a crow in sight.
The garden itself is run by a board of directors, says Margaret Young, who is the community-coordinator contact for the garden.
The board consists of five members “in good standing,” and the official positions are chairperson, a vice chairperson, secretary, treasurer and Young’s own, community-coordinator contact.
“I look after the communal areas in that garden,” she says, of her position, as she sits on the couch in a house she is looking after for a friend. “I allocate volunteer work, which is mandatory for all gardeners to do at least once a month — they should [that is], but not all do, because they’re busy with their lives and work. Or I find somebody at a loose end, and I ask them, ‘Can you help out with this, can you help out with that’ ”
Young has been gardening all her life. She started by watching and assisting her parents and grandparents in her hometown of Birmingham, England. Once she married and had children, she gardened an acre-wide stretch of land on her own. Now an Ocean Beach resident, she has her own private garden as well as a plot in the community space.
Many of the gardeners who currently have plots in Ocean Beach are experienced and have been there for a number of years. Some members have had their spaces since the early 2000s; Young has been on the board since 1995.
“In the ’90s, there was a big turnover,” she says. “The people were of a caliber that thought they wanted a garden and then would give up quite easily and disappear. But not now. People are very settled. They’re the right type of people to be gardeners, I would say.”
The garden has had a few bumps in the road, including a recent theft of tools and supplies. Overnight, Young says, several people broke in and stole whatever was on hand.
“They were looking for tool tools, not particularly garden tools, but hammers, saws,” she says. “I think they had seen the progress of [our] greenhouse going up, so they were stealing screws and nails. They didn’t touch any of the spades in our tool shed, but they certainly went on a big rampage and even took some garden ornaments and a few plants. Worst of all they, they uprooted two or three apple trees and stole those, and one gardener had two potted [citrus] trees, and they stole those too. They broke down the fence at the front, which we’ve repaired ourselves.”
Still, says Young, these incidents are infrequent, and the garden is mostly a jolly place. During her time, she has piloted several successful programs for the gardeners, their families, and friends, one of which is a garden contest. Judges, including a staff member from the Balboa Park nursery and two park rangers, observe the gardens in secret and vote on them based on plot number only. Young tallies the votes for each category — Best New Garden, Best Salad Garden, and Gardener of the Year, for example — and the winners are announced at an annual party in October.
Last year, to bring everyone together even more, Young and the board threw a July garden party potluck-barbeque, complete with food contest. Each contestant brought a dish made with something from their garden, whether it was a side or a main meal.
“The treasurer brought along his barbeque pit, and we had the food contest,” she says. “We had the potluck, and a wonderful afternoon.”
While having a plot can be quite an undertaking, Young says her crop of gardeners is especially dedicated.
“It’s a valuable resource to people, especially for apartment-dwellers and condo [owners],” she says, of the garden. “They have this really big feeling for growing vegetables, but they don’t have the space to do it. Or they may have a shady balcony and then they get into problems trying to grow stuff.
“If you take a garden, be diligent,” she says. “We have a strict board with strict rules, so the city will not frown on us as an organization. That’s basically what we do, try to keep a good standing with the city so that the gate stays open.”
VERA HOUSE COMMUNITY GARDEN
LOCATION:Corner of 34th Street and North Mountain View Drive, San Diego
PLOTS: 200 square feet, about 10’ x 20’
ELIGIBILITY: Normal Heights residents have first priority; public
WAITING LIST: 22
SOIL TYPE: Clay and mulch
PLANTS: Fruit, vegetables, and flowers.
At the Vera House Community Garden, the greeter on hand is a feline. A black-and-white longhair, her name is Harmony and she is, as Katherine Rotherham, one of the garden board members, describes, their “organic gopher catcher.”
There garden is small, with 11 individual plots and communal herb plot, located on a vacant parcel where 34th Street meets North Mountain View Road in Normal Heights. The streets are tree-lined, picturesque. Neighborhood houses generally have their own well-tended gardens, creating an abundance of plant life on the block.
The lot, according to Rotherham, was once occupied by a small house that had fallen to ruin some time ago. After a fire in Normal Heights, the remains were burned to the ground. The lot remained empty until the garden went in nearly 20 years ago.
“Fran Wilcox started the first community gardens in Normal Heights,” Rotherham says, sitting at a small table in the center of the garden. “She had a children’s garden at Adams Elementary School and a community garden on Bonnie Court, which is where I–15 is now. When that got taken away, she started looking for another one. She connected up with Lois Miller, who lives down the block here, and they found this place.”
The namesake for the garden, Rotherham says, was a neighborhood woman named Vera, who “always thought it would be nice to have flowers” growing on the lot. House died of cancer in the late ’80s, and when the garden went in not long after, it was dedicated to her memory.
Everything, Rotherham remembers, in the garden was put in for free by neighborhood dwellers, but not everyone was happy about its progress.
“When it started out, there was a renter next door, and she was very opposed to this garden,” she says. “The city attorney had determined that this was an agricultural use of a residential plot, and it wasn’t okay. But he also told us that they were revising the zoning code, and that if we worked with them, we could get community gardens okayed in residential areas.”
Members of the Normal Heights community — and others — rallied together, getting petitions signed and attending meetings.
“[TV weatherman] Loren Nancarrow said he’d come out and handcuff himself to a pepper plant,” Rotherham says with a smile. “Anyway, we got it into the zoning, and then we were okay here.”
And in came the gardeners.
“We have a postman, we have a county worker, we have four retired people, we have a San Diego State professor, substitute teacher,” Rotherham says. “I’d say the ages range from the 80s down to the late 30s, early 40s. The college professor brings her two children down. The baby will be here, watching what’s going on.”
EASTSIDE COMMUNITY GARDEN
LOCATION: Civic Center Drive and North Weitzel Street, Oceanside
PLOTS: 55, size varies
WAITING LIST: no plots currently available
SOIL TYPE: Varies
PLANTS: Fruits and vegetables, some flowers
The East Side Community Garden is enormous, as far as community gardens go. Pea plants stand tall on large plots, fenced in by strong string tied to posts, and corn stalks wave in the hot breeze, their husks browning slightly in the sun. The east edge of the garden, which overlooks I-5, is lined with cacti. Vine-traced trellises stand among the plots, shading plants from the elements, and rows and rows of ground-hugging plants sit in even, unbroken lines.
While Concha Greene, the chairperson for the Oceanside community organization, community assistant for the city of Oceanside. and one of the garden’s founders, is not sure of the exact dimensions, it could easily hold a decent-sized condominium complex.
“This was an empty lot that the city owned, and the people in the community needed a garden,” says Green, who sits under a shady canopy in the center of the garden. “Most of them lived in apartments, and they didn’t have the space, so people in the community came together and cleaned up this empty lot and proceeded to make a garden for themselves. There were about 50 [people]. They were adults, families, and kids.”
They did all the work themselves, hauling out the rocks and debris left over when contractors destroyed the houses that once occupied the plot.
“We had to clear all that stuff out of here,” Greene says. We did it with what we had, trucks from people in the community…The labor came from people in the community.”
The garden was funded with part of a grant from the California Wellness Foundation, which poured $1.2 million into the then-struggling Oceanside neighborhood 15 years ago.
“People were able to come and get the vegetables and whatever the gardeners had grown. to help themselves get food on the table, sharing,” says Greene. “What they do is most of the residents that have a plot here in the garden have apartments, so when they pick their vegetables, they take it to the apartment complex. and they give them out to the people there.”
That’s the whole idea of the garden, which is restricted to vegetable- and fruit-growing only. Exchanging and gifting food is key. “Especially, now with the job market the way it is,” Greene says. “Plus it provides a little bit of food on the table for the ones that can’t really afford it.”
Historically, not everyone has followed this rule. One man, Greene reports, even started selling his harvest to a local grocery store.
“I trailed him in my car,” she says, with a sly grin. “Some of the gardeners told me [what he was doing], and that was a big no-no, because that’s not what we had built this garden for, for self-profit. We built it to help the community, but evidently this guy was helping himself.”
She followed him to the grocery store and watched him unload and make a sale.
“When he tried to deny it I told him ‘I saw it with my own eyes.’ So that [was] it. Of course, he made it worse for himself by threatening me…”
The man was removed from the garden, along with several others who were using the garden for drinking and parties. Greene, who took an 11-month sick leave from her position, returned to find that some gardeners were taking “women of the night” into the shed — which has since been taken down — after dark.
“What really got me upset was that they started to fight amongst themselves,” Greene says. “Because one was jealous of the other one. They would say, ‘Oh, your plot is bigger’ and blah, blah, blah, this and that. When I started back at work, and I called a meeting, we threw out the [offenders], [and] we reorganized. We made them sign a contract that all of the above they were doing was not going to be tolerated, no more excuses, they would be out on the first offense.
Since then, the garden has been peaceful. Greene says that the group handling the plots is now more diverse.
“Before, it was mostly people from the community, mostly Hispanics,” she says, “But now that we have some people from the area north of here, we have Vietnamese, we have Japanese, we have Caucasians, we have Mexicans, and we have a few black people who are involved in the garden, which is great to me. Because that’s the way it should be.”
The garden, she says, helped the community come together at a time when it needed it most, 15 years ago.
“We’re still fighting the gangs and we’re still fighting the drugs, which we’ll always be,” Greene says, “but at least now it’s livable.”
Several garden contacts did not return calls for comment. Others preferred not to be included in this article.
— Rosa Jurjevics