Growing Room

Community gardens provide affordable access to organic produce

Jenne Thomson picks Pimientos de Padrón peppers in her garden plot at Hamline Community Garden.

Photographs by Rachael Olmstead

Most people are aware of the health benefits of eating produce that is free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals, but organic fruits and vegetables are often more expensive than their commercially grown counterparts. As a result, people who live on a tight budget are often priced out of the healthiest food options. For those who don’t have the luxury of a sun-filled backyard where they can grow fresh fruits and vegetables, the South Bay’s community gardens offer an affordable way to enjoy organic food for less than $100 a year.

The Community Gardens Program in San Jose, which began in 1977, offers gardeners individual plots of land on which they can grow a list of approved fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Nam Nguyen, a gardener at the three-acre La Colina Community Garden near Lean Avenue, says, “I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the gardening community because as the sole provider for my large family, I cannot afford to pay $2 to $3 per pound for tomatoes, bell peppers, or cucumbers at local farmers’ markets. Gardening provides me with a way to bring fresh vegetables to my family at a reasonable cost.”

The 19 community gardens within the San Jose city limits are tremendously popular, with more than 900 gardeners participating. Would-be gardeners place their name on the city’s waitlist, then wait one to three years to receive a plot. Once their name reaches the top of the list, they can keep their plot as long as they wish.

Hamline Community Garden
Carolyn Cook never expected to find a garden off a busy street near Interstate 880, but that’s what she discovered one day when she took a detour to Hamline Street and Sherwood Avenue.

“I couldn’t believe it was here,” Cook says of Hamline Community Garden. “I got the name of the secretary at the time and signed on the waiting list and got a plot within a year.”

For Cook, who has minimal outdoor space at her condominium, having a plot in the garden allows her to grow fresh produce. “I have a little backyard patio, but not enough room to really grow anything. So this is my chance. This is my way to interact and get my fingernails dirty,” she says.

Surrounded by towering oak trees, Hamline Community Garden is a narrow strip that covers less than an acre of ground. Each plot varies in size from 40 to 100 square feet, and gardeners pay water fees of about $75 per year. In the garden’s “share zone,” gardeners share equipment they aren’t using, such as tomato cages. Any excess produce that Hamline’s gardeners can’t eat, preserve, or give away is donated to Second Harvest Food Bank.

Although you can hear the cars rushing by on nearby Interstate 880, the garden’s peaceful ambience drowns out those sounds, Cook says. “If I’m here by myself, a lot of times there is a phoebe, a little bird. He’ll come and sit there and twitter. It’s a connection with nature.”

Although the majority of planting is done in the spring and summer months, some gardeners take advantage of winter’s minimal sun in order to plant winter gardens. Cook, who has been the garden’s manager for about five years, plants potatoes, peas, beats, fava beans, and carrots. “One of my kids really likes lemon cucumbers so I like to grow those for him,” she says. “And I tell you there’s nothing like a fresh green bean.”

Laguna Seca Community Garden
Pressed up against the rolling green hills in South San Jose west of Santa Teresa Boulevard, Laguna Seca Garden is the backdrop for a tight-knit community where gardeners help each other and share advice and knowledge.

“All these people up here are friends,” says Mickey Neff, Laguna Seca’s garden manager for the last four years. In his own plot, Neff grows tomatoes, beans, peppers, squash, eggplant, and four different kinds of berries. “It’s just sort of a mental thing to be digging in the soil and planting and watching things grow.”

Plots at Laguna Seca vary in size from 450 to 700 square feet; gardeners are charged about 10 cents per square foot for water. A shared toolshed provides gardeners with equipment such as wheelbarrows, a rototiller, and shovels.

“For the prices of everything in the world today, what we pay here is not even a matter,” says Wesley Vance, who has gardened at Laguna Seca since the early 1980s. “You spend more than that on a good dinner.”

Like all of San Jose’s community gardens, Laguna Seca is 100 percent organic. Instead of pesticides, gardeners use ladybugs for pest control and spray soap, water, and garlic on their plants. An owl box, which in the spring is usually filled with chirping owlets, helps control rodents. Instead of using chemical-based fertilizers to help plants flourish, gardeners use compost and integrate green manure into their plots. Green manure is composed of different kinds of grasses and legumes, like fava beans, which are rich in nitrogen.

“One of the ideas that we try to incorporate is the fact that it’s a cycle, so nothing is wasted,” says Mike Grgich, a 12-year gardener at Laguna Seca who grows peppers, tomatoes, kale, and onions in the summer and broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage in the winter. “We compost all of our vines after the harvest. We’re trying to utilize everything.”

Berryessa Community Garden
Grapevines wind their way up metal poles to form a shade-covered community area at the front end of the two-acre Berryessa Community Garden in East San Jose, off Berryessa Road. Two acres in size and with 72 gardeners, Berryessa is one of San Jose’s largest community gardens. Phill Ripp, the garden manager, says Berryessa’s gardeners are of many ethnicities, including Filipino, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Russian. Some gardeners plant crops native to their countries.

Ripp’s plot includes cacti, garlic, onions, potatoes, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. “The flavor is so much better than what you buy in the store,” he says. “Last year, I put up 900 pounds of tomatoes, so I made tomato juice in quart jars.”

One unique feature at Berryessa is the option for gardeners to plant a fruit tree. The garden’s small orchard has 63 spaces for trees; each space requires an annual water fee of $10. Garden plots are 600 square feet in size and cost $70 per year for water. As at all of the community gardens, water-intensive crops such as rice are not allowed; others such as taro and sugar cane must be pre-approved.

To help control pests, Berryessa is home to three feral cats that hunt gophers and other vermin. The garden also has two bat boxes; the bats control mosquitoes and other insect pests. A water station offers a place for gardeners to clean their produce after harvesting.

Besides San Jose, several other cities in the Bay Area offer community gardens where residents can grow fresh, organic produce.

More Community Gardens

Edith Morley Community Garden
615 Campbell Technology Parkway
Contact: Diana Johnson
Waitlist size: 65
Waitlist time: three to four years
No. of plots: 35
Size of plots: 10 x 20
Cost: $30 per year
Notes: Taking the place of the former Winchester Drive-In, Edith Morley Community Garden is 100 percent organic and provides its gardeners with garden tools and gardeners can plant fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs. Restricted items include cactus, trees, corn taller than six feet, alfalfa, rice and other water-intensive crops.

The Morgan Hill Community Garden
Butterfield Boulevard, between E. Main Avenue and Diana Avenue
Morgan Hill
Contact: Sherrie Wren
Waitlist size: 14
Waitlist time: 3 months to 12 months
No. of plots: 47
Size of plots: 26 plots, 100 square feet; 9 plots, 150 square feet; 8 plots, 200 square feet; 4 plots, 300 square feet
Cost: $.50 square foot
Notes: Gardeners can plant vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers. Restricted plants include high water consumption plants, vines and fruit trees (which can be planted along the garden’s fence). In the fall of 2011, the garden will donate produce to food pantries at St. Catherine’s and St. Josephs in Morgan Hill. The garden also offers free seasonal gardening classes each month, many of which are taught by master gardeners and are open to the public.

Palo Alto Community Gardens
Contact: Catherine Bourquin

Main Palo Alto Garden, Eleanor Community Garden, and Johnson Community Garden
Waitlist size: Main garden, 15; Eleanor Community Garden, 10; Johnson Community Garden, 39
Waitlist time: Main and Eleanor gardens, six months to one year; Johnson, one to two years
No. of plots: Main garden, 160; Eleanor Community Garden, 70; Johnson Community Garden 29
Size of plots: From 31 square feet to 1,1012 square feet
Cost: $.40 square foot annually with a $100 refundable deposit
Notes: Gardeners may not plant trees or bushes and permanent plants may not be more than five feet in height. The garden is organic and provides water, refuse services, mulch, irrigation and some fence repairs.

Community Gardens Directory

Campbell Community Garden, 615 Campbell Technology Parkway
McClellan Ranch Park Community Garden Plots, 22221 McClellan Road
Morgan Hill Community Garden, 17295 Butterfield Boulevard
Mountain View Senior Center, Corner of Escuela Avenue and Crisanto Avenue
Mountain View Willowgate Community Garden, Andsbury Avenue and Central Avenue
Edith Johnson Garden, 200 Waverly Street
Palo Alto Eleanor Pardee Garden, 1201 Channing Avenue
Palo Alto Main Community Garden, 1313 Newell Street
Palo Alto Midtown Garden, 2699 Middlefield Road
Alviso Community Garden, N. First Steers and Tony P. Santos Street
Berryessa Community Garden, Commodore Drive and Cape Colony Drive
Bestor Art Park Community Garden, South Six and Bestor Drive
Calabazas Community Garden, Blaney Avenue and Danridge Drive
Cornucopia Community Garden, S. King Street and Story Road
Coyote Creek Community Garden, Tully Road and Galveston Avenue
Discovery Community Garden, Branham Lane and Discovery Avenue
El Jardin Community Garden, S. King Street and Story Road
Green Thumb Community Garden, Rhoda Drive and Roewill Drive
Guadalupe Community Garden, Walnut Street and Asbury Street
Hamline Community Garden, Hamline Street and Sherwood Avenue
Jesse Frey Community Garden, Alma Loop and Belmont Way
La Colina Community Garden, Allegan Circle
Laguna Seca Community Garden, Manresa Court and Bayliss Drive
Latimer Community Garden, Latimer Avenue and Hamilton Avenue
Martial Cottle Community Garden, 5285 Snell Avenue
Mayfair Community Garden, Kammerer Avenue and Sunset Avenue
Nuestra Tierra Community Garden, Tully Road and La Ragione Avenue
Rainbow Center Community Garden, Rainbow Drive and Johnson Avenue
Wallenberg Community Garden, Curtner Avenue and Cottle Avenue
Wilson School Community Garden, Benton Street and Scott Boulevard
Sunnyvale Community Garden, Charles Street Gardens, 433 Charles Street

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