Evolving Views on Community Gardening
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler, with photos by Nicki Rosario (top to bottom): Looking northeast to the hills from the Hayward Community Gardens (HCG), Jorge Nunez planting chile de arbol and some “really spicy” miura peppers at the HCG, Francisco Flores tending his bees at the HGC.
There is no website or Facebook page for the Hayward Community Gardens. Instead, the people who farm this 5.3-acre parcel of PG&E greenway in Hayward’s Jackson Triangle neighborhood stay connected by seeing each other’s faces through the grape trellises, around the impressive hedges of nopal, and over the wire fences that divide their plots. They also wear the same dirt on their work clothes, and throughout the summer, they share potluck dishes made from garden produce.
Sandy Frost, who serves as the unofficial spokesperson for the Hayward Community Gardens, says that as far as she knows, this is the East Bay’s longest-running community gardening effort. When the gardens were first established in 1977, they were a pastiche of small gardening spaces at diverse Hayward locations and were mostly used for summer gardening by elderly people and families who wanted to grow summer tomatoes. Those spaces were abandoned in 1983 when the PG&E property became available as a lease through the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District. That parcel has now been divided into approximately 210 plots, each averaging 20 by 30 feet, with some members using more than one plot. Members sign an agreement and pay annual dues to cover nominal overhead operating costs and the major expense of city water for irrigation.
Over the years, the nature of gardening here has changed dramatically, mostly due to the expanding populations of immigrant groups with agrarian backgrounds that have moved into the area. The foods grown in the gardens now are likely to be items that are important in the members’ home regions of Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Mexico, Central and South America, Polynesia, and the rural southern U.S. “There’s an incredible diversity of traditions and tastes here,” says Frost. “Food, seed and plants, agricultural practices, language, and culture are shared.”
In mid-spring, many of the gardens are showing off a thick cover of fava and mustard plants in full bloom, and one plot is flush with the lushly delicate foliage of maturing garbanzo. Others are set neatly with rows of onions and garlic ready for harvest. Pepper and tomato starts are freshly planted, while seeds for other summer crops are germinating underground. Francisco Flores, the Gardens’ most enthisiastic beekeeper, says that his bees are commuting daily up to the nearby hills where the wildflowers are now unfurling.
At the moment, however, most gardeners interviewed seem proudest of the beautiful six-page photographic spread just published in the April issue of Sunset magazine. The article presents the Gardens as a showcase for items rarely seen as crops in the U.S., such as burdock root, purslane, and an allium called gandana grown by the gardeners from Afghanistan.
“What we have to offer is closer to urban farming,” says Frost, who describes how they have been able to use their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to get certification to sell produce, seedlings, and honey products each week at the Saturday Hayward Farmers’ Market at City Hall Plaza. So far, the proceeds have been used to pay back the seed money contributed toward establishing the market booth, but the intention is for the sales to eventually fund operation of the gardens.
Frost also articulates a larger vision:
“We would like to see more gardens in every neighborhood, street corner, and vacant lot throughout Hayward. We would like to extend our agricultural island into the city through education, social events, art and music. We would like to operate small business enterprises and make a livelihood for ourselves through agricultural endeavors and processing. As an organization, we are reaching out to the unincorporated areas with county jurisdiction who are already offering locally grown food, education, and business opportunity to their residents. We are working on advocacy and local food policy.”
John Johnson, the non-profit’s newly appointed executive director, sees his work as part of a larger effort to instigate employment opportunities of all kinds, mostly for the youth in his community.
“It’s the socialism debate,” says Johnson, who is also president of the Alameda County United Young Democrats, and both president and founder of Empowerment Training and Education. “If the government does it, it’s socialism. If a non-profit does it, it’s enterprise.”
The Hayward Community Gardens are on Whitman Street at Berry Avenue. 510.537.8901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oakland Youth Gardening (Photo courtesy of Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation: Kilajz shows off an onion she harvested from the Mosswood Community Center garden)
Meanwhile, the City of Oakland, spurred by the mandate from its Food Policy Council to improve the nutrition of all residents, is stepping up its community gardening program. This spring, the Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation spearheaded a program of free weekly afterschool garden workshops for 9- to 12-year-olds at the Golden Gate, deFremery, Mosswood, Arroyo Viejo, and Campbell Village recreation centers.
“We are currently seeking applications for garden instructors who would be interested in volunteering to teach youth programs at other sites,” says Peter Collier, the office’s Community Gardening Program coordinator. “Our goal is to ensure that all communities are served.”
The office also operates nine community gardens for use by adults, and it’s no surprise that the spaces are in hot demand.
“With the exception of one, all of our gardens have wait lists, the longest being for the gardens at Lake Merritt, where we have about 100 people on the wait list,” says Collier. He points out that in this time of budgetary downsizing, it is impossible for the city to be in garden-creation mode. “It would be great to see community members mobilize and begin a grassroots fundraising campaign for the construction of additional gardens. I think the current partnership agreements we have with local nonprofits provide a model of what is possible.”
Those partnerships are arrangements cultivated with the community-based nonprofits, City Slicker Farms, Phat Beets Produce, and Oakland Based Urban Gardens (aka OBUGS), to operate gardens on city land for the benefit of the surrounding communities. •
For more on the Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation Community Gardening Program, including a full list of gardens with their locations, go to www.oaklandnet.com/parks/programs/communitygardening.asp
Nicki Rosario is a freelance photographer working closely with the Bay Area communities to produce imagery that represents everyday life to the fullest. To see more of her work go to www.nickirosario.com
Nicki Rosario is a freelance photographer working closely with the Bay Area communities to produce imagery that represents everyday life to the fullest. To see more of her work go to nickirosario.com