Monday, March 23, 2009

Story of a Garden

Ed Dierauf, San Francisco community gardener

Sometime in 1975, Ed Dierauf, pictured above, was taking a jog down 15th Avenue in San Francisco's Richmond District. Passing what had long been a sandy lot adjacent to a San Francisco Unified School district child development center -- filled only with the garbage that passersby had left there -- he noticed a small group of people diligently at work with shovels and other equipment. When he inquired, someone said they were creating a community garden.

He turned around, went to his home a block away, changed his clothes and returned to join their efforts. In a sense, he has never left.

Fava beans and kale

Since that time 34 years ago, Dierauf and his fellow community gardeners have transformed the lot from sand dunes covered with non-native ice plant into roughly 75 plots and two tiny apple and pear orchards. Working the same small patch that he took up in 1975, above, he grows fava beans, scarlet runner beans, and kale, and combined with the food he harvests from his and his wife's back yard -- lettuce, Swiss chard, and apples from four apples trees -- he has been able to save up to about $300 annually in food costs.

Letter from Massachusetts

Gardening has long ranked at or near the top of surveys about favorite American pastimes, but in recent months, in response to the double whammies of the oil price spike in 2008 and the current economic downturn, gardening is coming back into vogue in full force, as many people realize the cheapest way to eat is to grow their own food. Even the suburban Boston town where my sister lives has recently caught the collective gardening fever -- in a recent letter (yes, an actual LETTER, not an email), my sister wrote that her town has recently bought land to turn into a community garden.

Genesis of a San Francisco Movement
While Ed Dierauf, 80, was not there to break ground for the Argonne Community Garden in April 1975 (he came a few months later), he can at least say he was there as a part of the first year of San Francisco's community garden movement.

The beginning of Argonne Community garden started with a federal job training program that no longer exists -- CETA, or the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, passed by Congress in 1973. Part of the function of CETA was to fund arts programs in the schools. San Francisco sculptor Ruth Osawa, whose intricate wire sculptures now hang from the ceilings of the de Young Museum, believed that gardens were an expression of artistic sentiment. She was influential in convincing the Alvarado Arts Workshop, which administered a share of CETA funds in San Francisco, to dedicate money to the recruitment of 19 gardeners to start organic community gardens. In April 1975, the workshop hired then Richmond District resident Mary Ann Crandall to find a location for and start a Richmond District garden.

Crandall’s Southern California family had had a victory garden during World War II but she was otherwise new to gardening. She scouted the Richmond for a suitable spot and eventually was able to get permission from the San Francisco Unified School District to transform the land around the childcare center into a garden. Coincidentally, according to an old neighbor, that very site had been the site of a victory garden during World War II.

“We started with five people, and we were na├»ve,” says Crandall, 74, who now gardens in Santa Rosa. “We only had compost bins, and we made manure runs to the stables in Golden Gate Park.”

Because there was only one faucet for a hose on the outside of the childcare center, they attached five hoses together in order to reach distant plots. They stored the hoses in a neighbor’s garage. Soon after that first year, gardeners installed an irrigation system, still in place, with the help of city government.

Susan Sibbett, pictured above, and her husband David, joined the garden in 1978. Susan Sibbett and Dierauf built the 15th Avenue fence, behind her in the photo, together.

The Greenhouse

Flora of the Fog Belt
When Dierauf and his fellow gardeners were starting, they didn’t know what would grow in the sandy soil under the Richmond District fog.

“There was one far out group in the early years who tried to cultivate a circle of wheat, but they failed, “ says Crandall. They had made that attempt in the part of the garden where there is now a geodesic dome greenhouse.

Dierauf, Crandall, and the other gardeners also realized quickly that hot weather plants such as tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplants and most legumes, generally would not do well. But lettuce, chard, sorrel, spinach, kale, broccoli, beets, peas, artichokes, potatoes, scarlet runner beans, and fava beans thrived – and still thrive.



Lettuce and chard





Dierauf and his wife have mostly steamed what they have grown -- or used it in salads, but Crandall reacalls making Borscht and vegetable soups with carrots, peas, and bok choy for high school interns who worked with her every summer.

Funding from CETA ended in 1979, and Crandall sadly left San Francisco. But Deirauf and others were well on their way in expanding the urban gardening movement, anyway. By then, Dierauf had applied for a grant to get solar panels installed on the original child care center, he had helped increase the number of plots to around 80, and in 1980 he and half a dozen other city gardeners founded the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG).

“There were all these community gardens,” said Dierauf. “It was obvious that there was a need for some sort of umbrella organization to help gardeners to talk to each other.”

It took several years to start, but by the mid-1980s, SLUG was up and running as a non-profit. Its mission statement was to give anyone who wanted it the opportunity to garden organically in the city.

For about 15 years, Dierauf sat on the board of SLUG and helped support the growing number of community gardens. (There are now about 50.)

“We had a charismatic leader then,” said Dierauf, in reference to Mohammed Nuru who left SLUG to go to the San Francisco Department of Public Works.

Dierauf recalled Nuru with admiration, noting that he had been able to get funding for the salary for his job. Under Nuru, Dierauf, and other board members, SLUG arranged regular meetings of gardeners so they could discuss common problems. SLUG also started a kitchen industry called Urban Herbals that involved Bayview teenagers in the production of jellies and vinegars. That program is no longer extant, but another program started by SLUG, the Garden for the Environment, on 7th Avenue in the Inner Sunset, still offers gardening courses.

LinkApple trees, the Upper Orchard.

View of the Argonne Child Development Center with solar panels. There is a communal raspberry patch in the foreground.

In the early 2000s, the school district considered selling the land and moving the child development center to a nearby elementary school. A friend of mine recalls a developer stopping by once when she was tending her garden and suggesting that the plot would be better off turned into condominiums. "It was as if he were straight out of central casting," she told me recently.

Dierauf has noted that all of San Francisco's community gardens exist under the constant threat of development pressures. However, the Argonne gardeners -- this time -- were able to craft a deal that saved the garden: bond money would be used to rebuild and expand the center in the same location, and in return, the garden would give up a few plots. The childcare center architects also agreed enhance the landscaping and throw in a new greenhouse, to boot.

Bench dedicated to Ed Dierauf

In June 2006, members of the Argonne Community Garden dedicated this bench to Ed Dierauf in recognition of all of his work for the benefit of city gardeners. If you sit here on a clear day, you can see the western end of Mt. Tamalpais in the distance.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Tragedy of Auto-Centric Planning

My sister and her husband bought a house in this Boston bedroom community in late 1989 or early 1990. While there remain a few Revolutionary War-era farm houses, in the decades since World War II, it has been transformed into a thoroughly suburban community with with strip malls, and wide, tree-shaded streets with few sidewalks. Everyone drives everywhere, and during the dog days of August, some people even get in their cars and turn the air conditioners on to stay cool. When I visit, I try to walk places, but the absence of adequate sidewalks makes walking -- and riding bicycles -- really dangerous.

The first time I visited them, in March 1990, we sat down one night to watch the local evening news. There was one report that I will never forget. A woman had been walking along one of the town streets, probably a street like the streets in these photographs without adequate sidewalks -- if there were any at all.

She had been hit by a car and rushed to an emergency room. Whether she was dead on arrival or whether she died later, I can't remember. But I do remember this: her own sister was one of the emergency room nurses on duty that night at the hospital when she was wheeled in.

Unfortunately, this town has become only marginally safer for pedestrians -- I took these photographs in 2008. In the top one you can see the dirt path created by people determined to walk despite the absence of a sidewalk. In the next one you can see a sidewalk along the side of the road next to a mall parking lot but not one on the side of the road where there are homes. The last photograph shows a pedestrian signal that seems to have been attached to the wrong side of the lamp post for some reason. That seems like it would be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gardening for the Future

This is my community garden.

I'm going to admit that in the past few years I have neglected my own plot. But this year, with the economic downturn and possible arrival of peak oil (which may in part have triggered the economic downturn), one of my New Years resolutions is to tend my garden better.

Gardening comes as naturally to humanity as salmon fishing comes to Alaskan Brown Bears. In fact, it routinely scores at the top in surveys of favorite hobbies. In the near future, however, gardening will probably become much more than a hobby for many people, maybe even most, as the cost of fuel goes up and drives up the cost of grocery market food which has been shipped in from all over the nation and world.

James Howard Kunstler, peak oil author, addresses the link between the economic collapse and food security in a recent column called What Next? He critiques the efforts of President Barack Obama and Congress to shore up the old capitalistic financial system and recommends redesigning communities in such a way as to make them more sustainable within themselves. Here's an excerpt:

My guess is that the disorder in agriculture will be pretty severe this year, especially since some of the world's most productive places -- California, northern China, Argentina, the Australian grain belt -- are caught in extremes of drought on top of capital shortages. If the US government is going to try to make remedial policy for anything, it better start with agriculture, to promote local, smaller-scaled farming using methods that are much less dependent on oil byproducts and capital injections.