From the earliest harvest celebrations to WWII victory gardens to the farmer’s market last weekend, agriculture has always been a part of human nature. Living in a densely populated peninsula city like San Francisco, a farm is hard to come by. But hardworking people creatively combine their love for land and city to find ways to grow organic foods on roofs and abandoned dumps, continuing a pattern of urban agriculture that nurtures hidden land to feed city residents. Here’s the lowdown on everything green in the 7x7 mile radius of San Francisco, from community gardens to commercial food production.
Wasteland turned farm
Once a toxic waste dump, the 4.5-acre Alemany Farm was never perceived as the future site of a flourishing garden. However, in 1981, a group of land use advocates known as the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) turned the barren land into a community farm. When SLUG disbanded in 2000, the farm lay abandoned for two years. But a group of self -described “guerilla gardeners” reclaimed the land by transforming it from a weedy dump into a bountiful farm. With the help of diverse volunteers, the farm was able to sustain itself long enough to begin donating and selling food two years later. In 2010, the garden grew several thousand pounds of organic fruit and vegetables, half of which was given to homes in the Alemany Public Housing Community and the rest to volunteers. In addition to fruit and veggie production, the Alemany area boasts bee hives from the San Francisco Beekeepers’ Association for pollination of fruit and other crop yielding trees. Stop by 700 Alemany Boulevard near Ellsworth Street in the afternoon on the first or third Sunday and the second or fourth Saturday of the month to experience the wonders of growing and harvesting. Don’t forget to say hello to the bees!
A Garden, a community
Who knew the site of a freeway damaged in the 1989 earthquake would become a green space that helped make a community flourish? The Hayes Valley Farm offers not only a garden which thrives on volunteer work, but a unique community setting where residents can come for potlucks, movie nights, yoga classes and live music. The garden uses compost from local homes to grow its seeds, plants and fruit trees, as well as hosting gardening classes for youth and adults. The garden is currently working on a $20,000 project to provide youth internships, education programs and green job training. If you wish to volunteer at this unique community garden, volunteers are welcome on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 5 p.m. Dirty your hands planting, and come again to see the harvest.
Rooftop gardens are an innovative response to gardening in a tightly packed peninsula city. They not only insulate buildings, diminish water runoff and reduce noise, but they also provide room for volunteers and residents to get their hands dirty and cultivate leafy greens and succulent fruits. Glide Memorial Church’s “Graze the Roof” project is a perfect example. The Oakland-based nonprofit Bay Localize funded the high-rise garden, which grows sunflowers, Chinese cabbage, squash, spinach, radishes and other veggies. The roof garden also sports a small greenhouse made of reclaimed wood to protect baby plants.
Graze the Roof composts quickly, efficiently and uniquely, using rotating barrels and plenty of worms, including what is called “worm tea.” Worm tea is a product of vermicomposting, where worms are left with food compost and newspaper to produce nutrient-rich poop. This is not only used for f ertilization, but can also be brewed into hot water to make a “tea” for plants, increasing plant life and health. That’s right — even worm excrement is valued by a holistic farmer.
Backyard for the homeless
At Growing Home Community Garden in Hayes Valley, the organization sees food production secondary to “providing the homeless with a home, ‘backyard’, and community to belong with,” according to chief organizer Megan Rohrer. “Providing heart-centered mental health care is the first goal, and Growing Home is an emotional garden.” To many homeless, having a space to garden and feel the earth creates a calming and engaging learning experience. “It doesn’t matter if a plant dies, it’s good for the person tending to the plant to learn something about themselves through the plant’s lifespan,” Rohrer added.
Share some heart at Growing Home every Friday afternoon at Octavia and Lily Streets. Feel free to pinch a pea leaf to eat!
Non-Profit and Educational Gardening
Ever since SLUG disbanded in 2000, various community-based non-profits emerged to fill the program areas SLUG once served. One of those non-profits is the Garden For the Environment located in the Inner Sunset, which hosts a variety of programs to engage San Francisco Bay Area residents with the skills to improve home gardens, stir up community projects, or try to solve other social and environmental issues. According to Youth Programs Manager Nicole Brisebois of the GFE, urban agriculture is a great tool for educational nonprofits to provide space to form communities. “Community gardens bring people together to interact in a brilliantly simple space,” Brisebois said. “They exchange time and energy, which in turn grows companionship, knowledge, and food,” GFE Coordinators teach the public about gardening through hands-on projects, classes and workshops. At celebrations, the garden celebrates the community created through gardening efforts.
Obstacles in a small business’ path
While nonprofits are free to grow and give food for educational purposes, one pioneering pair encountered some roadblocks in creating a small profitable business. Artists and urban farmers Brooke Budner and Caitlyn Galloway created Little City Gardens in 2008 as a creative experiment to see if small-scale commercial food production is economically viable in San Francisco. They expanded their gardens into a residential neighborhood near Islais Creek in 2010, but soon were faced with tough zoning laws that prohibit gardeners from growing and selling their produce to the general public. LCG and the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance are working with the SF Department of Planning to change the zoning laws to allow more commercial and non-commercial gardens to become local produce extraordinares. As Little City Gardens continues their work in newly acquired land near Glen Park, Budner and Galloway currently distribute their organic salad greens mix to a restaurant and a few caterers. The gardening duo are also constructing a community-supported agriculture program for the public. The success of their “experimental business” demonstrates to others that daring, determined gardeners can lead small-scale food production.
Although urban agriculture can be tricky in dense areas, community volunteers fight to strengthen city gardens, encourage local and sustainable food and tighten communities. So flex your green thumbs and get dirty: when it comes to gardening, dig San Francisco. The plants and people will thank you.
Illustrations by Vivian Tong