Demand for Urban Gardening Exceeds Space

Marko Serpas relaxes in his plot at Dearborn Community Garden after harvesting tomatoes. Photo BRYAN GIBEL

Marko Serpas relaxes in his plot at Dearborn Community Garden after harvesting tomatoes. Photo BRYAN GIBEL

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Gardening is in Marko Serpas’ blood. His great-grandfather was a gardener, and Serpas’ can still remember his parents planting the same four vegetables each year in their New Orleans garden: tomatoes, green bell peppers, cucumbers and chayote.  Even then, he wanted to try new possibilities and in 1993 he put his name on the list for the Dearborn Community Garden, located on Dearborn Street between 17th Street and 18th Street .

Marko Serpas relaxes in his plot at Dearborn Community Garden after harvesting tomatoes. Photo BRYAN GIBEL

Marko Serpas relaxes in his plot at Dearborn Community Garden after harvesting tomatoes.

Seven years later, he got his plot. Nowadays, he said, the wait could be as long as two decades as 150 people fill a list of several pages that only advances by eight people on a good year.  “I think we have the longest waitlist in the world,” said Serpas, who now coordinates the list.

As urban gardening has grown in popularity over the last decade, so have the waitlists at most of the 51 community gardens in San Francisco, and all of the six gardens in the Mission District, according to the mid-August update at SFGRO, a local organization that promotes urban agriculture.

The surge in interest from urban dwellers wanting to save money and connect with the land has also meant tight rolls at privately owned community gardens as well as a number of new businesses designed to encourage homeowners and apartment dwellers to take up the trowel.

“We have probably the longest waiting list we’ve ever had for our gardens,” said Rita Meakin, volunteer coordinator at the Potrero del Sol Community Garden’s 80 plots, which sit on three to four acres near Potrero Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street. “There is absolutely more of a demand for garden space than the gardens can provide right now.”

In good hands and good conditions, $50 worth of seeds can grow into $1200 of produce, Meakin estimated. She said herbs, carrots and tomatoes are amongst the most popular crops being harvested in late summer, and those shift to lettuce, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts in the fall.

While each garden sets its own rules, Serpas said most plots cost $50 per year for city gardens and can go as high as $80 per year at a private garden.

Serpas, 52 years old, doesn’t harvest enough to keep him from going to the supermarket, but his garden does allow him to eat organic, chemical-free vegetables that he said taste better than store bought veggies “90 percent of the time.” His garden is only one of 44 at Dearborn, but it is a dense, shoulder-high grove of vegetables, herbs and flowers year round. This fall, some of Serpas’ crops will include sunflowers, several types of tomatoes and eight heads of cabbage. The latter he plans to make into sauerkraut.

With community garden space tight — the city hasn’t opened up a new garden in the Mission since 1996, according to Serpas — new businesses have sprung up that go into backyards and even apartments to help residents grow their own food.

Amyitis Gardens, based out of the Mission, will build and maintain a garden for property owners in exchange for gardening space and water. In return, Amyitis sells the produce to local restaurants such as The Corner and Weird Fish, and plot owners receive a discount at a network of restaurants in the neighborhood, said David Stockhausen, the founder of the company.

“It’s what I like to call a closed loop community system,” Stockhausen said. “Residents of the neighborhood become producers for restaurants that they are likely to go to, and maybe they will bring friends. So it’s really an effort to get the neighborhood to help sustain itself on some level.”

Stockhausen said the year old company has four clients and sells to at least four Mission restaurants. This summer, crops included peas, eggplant and baby squash, but as the fall begins, they have large crops of kale and other greens coming in.

Another company, Garden Fare, designs and installs edible landscapes for homeowners and apartment dwellers and offers workshops on how to build gardens with recycled items, such as wooden wine crates.

“You can actually grow a lot of food out of your apartment or on your roof,” said Leslie Bennett, a gardener and teacher with Garden Fare. “A lot of city regulations make it hard to get involved in community gardens, so working with private property is more sustainable for our business and easier for community members.”

Elizabeth Donoghue harvests carrots from the Potrero del Sol community garden.

Elizabeth Donoghue harvests carrots from the Potrero del Sol community garden.

Bennett said they have healthy gardens full of crops like arugula, mustard greens, green onions and herbs growing throughout the Bay Area. They charge about $50 for workshops, which includes the cost of supplies, but offer sliding-scale pricing based on income.

For some gardeners, the motivation to grow their own food is personal. “Especially living in an urban area, it’s really nice to dig in the dirt and have more of a connection to where your food comes from,” said Elizabeth Donoghue, who has been on the wait list at Potrero del Sol gardens for almost a year and a half, but shares a plot with friends. “I find it really meditative.”

Meakin said community gardens also serve as thriving public spaces for the neighborhoods where they are located. “It almost feels like a community backyard,” she said. “We have a picnic table and a barbeque. People bring their children, have birthday parties and potlucks—we have even had weddings.”

Back at Dearborn, Serpas watered his plot, beaming with enthusiasm at his incoming crop of tomatoes.

“The garden has kept me living in San Francisco,” Serpas said, “despite the challenges of being able to afford to live in this town.”

Gardening is in Marko Serpas’ blood. His great-grandfather was a gardener, and Serpas’ can still remember his parents planting the same four vegetables each year in their New Orleans garden: tomatoes, green bell peppers, cucumbers and squash. Even then, he wanted to try new possibilities and in 1993 he put his name on the list for the Dearborn Community Garden.

Seven years later, he got his plot. Nowadays, he said, the wait could be as long as two decades as 150 people fill a list of several pages that only advances by eight people on a good year. “I think we have the longest waitlist in the world,” said Serpas, who now serves as the coordinates the wait listcoordinator for his garden. At Dearborn, 150 people languish on a list that moves by an average of eight new garden members a year. “That meanssome people could have to wait almost 20 years to get a space in the garden,” he said.

As urban gardening has grown in popularity over the last decade, so have the wait lists at most of the 51 community gardens in the city, and all of the six community gardens in the Mission District, according to the mid-August update at SFGRO, a San Francisco organization that promotes urban agriculture. including Potrero del Sol Community Garden, which has about 80 plots on three to four acres near Potrero Ave and Cesar Chavez St. The surge in interest from urban dwellers wanting to save money and connect with the land and has also meant tight rolls at privately owned community gardens as well as a number of new businesses designed to encourage homeowners and apartment dwellers to take up the trowel.

“We have probably the longest waiting list we’ve ever had for our gardens,” said Rita Meakin, volunteer coordinator at the Potrero del Sol Community Garden’s 80 plots, which sit on three to four acres near Potrero Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street. “There is absolutely more of a demand for garden space than the gardens can provide right now.”

In good hands and good conditions, $50 worth of seeds can grow into $1200 of produce, Meakin estimated. She said herbs, carrots and tomatoes are amongst the most popular crops being harvested in late summer, and those shift to lettuce, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts in the fall.

While each garden sets its own rules, Serpas said most plots cost $50 per year for city gardens and can go as high as $80 per year at a private garden.

Serpas, 52 years old, doesn’t harvest enough to keep him from going to the supermarket, but his garden does allow him to eat organic, chemical-free vegetables that he said taste better than store bought veggies “90 percent of the time.” His garden is only one of 44 at Dearborn, but it is a dense, shoulder-high grove of vegetables, herbs and flowers year round. This fall, some of Serpas’ crops will include sunflowers, several types of tomatoes and eight heads of cabbage. The latter he plans to to make his into own sauerkraut.

While With community garden space tight—the city hasn’t opened up a new garden in the Mission in 15 years, according to Serpas—new businesses have sprung up that go into backyards and even apartments to help residents grow their own food.

Amyitis Gardens, based out of the Mission, will build and maintain a garden for property owners in exchange for gardening space and water. In return, Amyitis sells the produce to local restaurants such as The Corner and Weird Fish, and plot owners receive a discount at a network of restaurants in the neighborhood, said David Stockhausen, the founder of the company.

“It’s what I like to call a closed loop community system,” Stockhausen said. “Residents of the neighborhood become producers for restaurants that they are likely to go to, and maybe they will bring friends. So it’s really an effort to get the neighborhood to help sustain itself on some level.”

Stockhausen said the year old company has four clients and sells to at least four Mission restaurants in the Mission. This summer, crops included peas, peas, eggplant and baby squash, but as the fall begins, they have large crops of kale and other greens coming in.

Another company, Garden Fare, designs and installs edible landscapes for homeowners and apartment dwellers and offers workshops on how to build gardens with recycled items, such as wooden wine crates, so people can grow their own food even if they don’t have a yard.

“You can actually grow a lot of food out of your apartment or on your roof,” said Leslie Bennett, a gardener and teacher with Garden Fare. “A lot of city regulations make it hard to get involved in community gardens, so working with private property is more sustainable for our business and easier for community members.”

Bennett said they have healthy gardens growing throughout the Bay Area full of crops like arugula, mustard greens, green onions and herbs, to name a few growing throughout the Bay Area. They charge about $50 for workshops, which includes the cost of supplies, but offer sliding-scale pricing based on income.

For some gardeners, the motivation to grow their own food is personal. “Especially living in an urban area, it’s really nice to dig in the dirt and have more of a connection to where your food comes from,” said Elizabeth Donoghue, who has been on the wait list at Potrero del Sol gardens for almost a year and a half, but shares a plot with friends. “I find it really meditative.”

Meakin said community gardens also serve as thriving public spaces for the neighborhoods where they are located. “It almost feels like a community backyard,” she said. “We have a picnic table and a barbeque. People bring their children, have birthday parties and potlucks—we have even had weddings.”

Back at Dearborn, Serpas is wateringwatered his plot and tending to his crops with a nurturing hand, beaming with enthusiasm at his incoming crop of tomatoes. It’s a task, he said, that makes urban living tolerable.

“The garden has kept me living in San Francisco,” Serpas said, “despite the challenges of being able to afford to live in this town.”

7 Comments

  1. Mark

    Having lived on Dearborn for a number of years across from the garden, I can also say that at least this urban garden added a distinct and welcome atmosphere to the immediate neighborhood.

  2. el californio

    Correct me if I am wrong, but with 80 plots at Potrero del sol (or La Raza park as I knew it growing up), does that mean that only 80 households are able to enjoy 3-4 acres of land all year long.

    That seems like those acres are underutilized. If the community garden was opened up as a park, I’m certain that more than 80HH would derive a benefit from the open space.

  3. art paul

    I’ve been at Dearborn Garden for 18? years. I lived nearby for many years, and had to wait 3 years to get my plot. I’ve moved 4 times in SF since then, but have maintained my connection to the earth with my plot.
    That’s probably why the turnover is so low: it’s a still point in the turning universe.

  4. I’m not sure of the history of La Raza Park, but the Potrero del Sol Community Garden occupies a section of land near the much larger Potrero del Sol Park. So, while the garden does contain 80 plots, it hasn’t replaced the park. It’s located right next to it. If you click on the first time I reference Potrero del Sol Community Garden in the story, it will take you to a Google map that shows you where the garden and the park next to it are located.

  5. el californio

    Bryan,

    I know that the gardens did not replace a park. My point is just that with 80 HH using the gardens a couple hours a week all year long, the land is underutilized. I think if it were converted into park space, more than 80 hh a year could use the land.

  6. Marisol

    Bryan, great story! We are starting an Urban garden in the SE heights here in Burque…so this is good inspiration. Miss you guys!
    Mari

  7. Sultanah

    Hi Bryan,

    I found your report to be very informative. Wait-lists do two things; first, it reveals the interests and needs of the community. Second, it reflects the bureaucracy that often time creeps up and out of institutions that are most times not directly connected to the heart of the community as may be true for the dwellers.

    I am moving to an up and coming neighborhood in down town Oakland, This district is becoming saturated with new businesses (mainly restaurants) and housing-in turn, requiring new space for people to park their cars. What’s sad is that parks, soil and grass are being replaced with concrete. I was actually encouraged by a housing manager to petition for a park to be considered over a parking lot.

    Your story has inspired me greatly. I like the idea of a closed looped community system. I can totally imagine having a park open for youth to participate in growing tomatoes and the likes for the local restaurants in Oakland.

    This is what I love about reporting…..It makes the world go round :)

    Harmony,
    Sultanah

Comments are closed.