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 .
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.”
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.”