Connecting with Community in Gardening Together
For Senior Life Magazine
by Cynthia Robertson

“Gardens, scholars say, are the first sign of commitment to a community. When people plant corn they are saying, let's stay here. And by their connection to the land, they are connected to one another.” Anne Raver.

In San Diego, gardens take root almost as easily as a bird takes to the sky. But with urban sprawl fingering into the suburbs, the concept of gardening has taken on a community feel. Community gardening will have Mary hoeing along with Harry, but each in their own separate plots.

The community garden is a relatively new but quintessential American concept in the annals of human history. The first community gardens began in Detroit in 1893. It was a very American undertaking. The government would provide the land and promote the use of the land for community gardening.

How do community gardens grow today in San Diego? At last count, 19 community gardens thrived in San Diego County, according to the list kept by the UC San Diego Cooperative Extension Program. “Their Master Gardener Program is wonderful,” said Kim Hibler, who comes twice weekly to tend to her plot at the Vera House Community Garden in Normal Heights.

“The program teaches everything from scratch about community gardening,” said Hibler. She plants herbs, artichokes, onions, broccoli and cabbage.

“Last year, I had tons of lettuce, and I couldn’t eat it all, so I shared it with the other gardeners. I leave the leftovers on our picnic table here in the garden,” she said.

“One year, we had an overabundance of zucchini,” said Katherine Rotherham who also has a plot at Vera House. “Two of our gardeners who worked at Mama’s Kitchen took the left-over zucchini there. You know that if you puree zucchini, it is a wonderful ingredient in spaghetti sauce?”

The Vera House Community Garden is an organic garden, located on the corner of 34 th and North Mountain View, with 11 individual plots and a communal herb plot. It is sponsored by the Normal Heights Community Development Corporation and priority is given to residents within the immediate neighborhood and then to residents in the larger Normal Heights community.

Hibler lives in Tierra Santa, and Rotherham in Normal Heights. “We now have seven people on the waiting list. I lucked out when I joined two years ago. This is the closest community garden to me, only a half-hour drive,” said Hibler.”

Each gardener is assigned a plot that is about 10' by 20' and pays $25.00 every six months. “It’s the last best deal in town,” said Hibler.

The Vera House Community Garden was created from the separate visions of two women, both long term residents of Normal Heights. Fran Wilcox organized the first community gardens in Normal Heights on Bonnie Court in the 1970's and the

Children's Garden at Adams Elementary School in the 1980's. The Bonnie Court

garden closed when construction on Interstate 15 began and the Children's

Garden closed after about six years of operation.

Undaunted, Fran began looking for another site.

“I followed in the footsteps of Fran Wilcox,” said Rotherham. “We took an ugly, weeded lot here at this corner of 34 th and North Mountain Viewand turned it into the garden. It’s a fantastic outlet for the neighbors. Even the mailman stops by.”

“ And I love the smell of the soil and getting into it. I don’t even wear gloves,” said Hibler.

Rotherham pulled some weeds while Hibler watered her plot when an elderly man stopped by to talk. “You ever hear of victory gardens? My parents had one back in New York, and every time I walk by this garden, I remember that time,” he said.

“I do remember them, too,” said Rotherham. “My father used to grow tomatoes and my mother would do a lot of canning and make tomato juice. She also made pickles from cucumbers.”

During WWII, in cities across America, much of the city-owned land was cultivated for victory gardens. The government also subsidized people to grow their own private gardens. “That’s because the first fruits of what was grown commercially went straight to the soldiers in the war,” said Rotherham.

The queenly community garden in Banker’s Hill won the Best Community Garden award for the San Diego Reader’s Best of 2003. Perched on a hill on Front Street between Ivy and Juniper Street, the Juniper-Front Community Garden was established in 1981.

The lush growth of trees and flowering plants at the back of the garden lure the passer-by to linger for awhile. Hummingbirds make their high, snipping sound and land on bougainvillea shrubs. Finches and sparrows twitter loudly in the branches of grandfatherly trees just before sunset. A woman with her teen-aged son walks out of the garden with fresh heads of lettuce and cabbage.

The quarter block is divided into approximately sixty 10-by-12 foot plots. The Port Authority owns the land and rents the garden plots for about $60 per year. Juniper-Front Community Garden’s waiting list is long, often with prospective gardeners waiting a full year before an opening.

Since the 1890s, providing places for people to garden has been an inventive

strategy to improve American urban conditions. There have been vacant-lot

gardens, school gardens, and community gardens. Each type of garden represented a consistent impulse to return to gardening during times of social and economic change.

Today's community gardens resemble clubs and fraternal orders with bylaws,

mission statements, meetings and elected leaders. Margaret Young, membership coordinator of the Ocean Beach Community Garden, keeps a close watch on that property.

“We’re on city-owned land and actually part of the Collier Park next to the garden here. So we have a Board of Directors, pay our own bills, pay the annual insurance, and we run the garden ourselves,” Young explained. “Mainly I give out the garden spaces to members, keep the waiting lists and see that the people keep their gardens tidy.”

Young said that the overall purpose of gardening varies from person to person. “For example, someone may want to be able to garden in a relaxed environment, while someone else just wants to have their own fresh fruits and vegetables. Most people like to garden for the freshness, anyway. Besides, retired people can escape to be one with nature,” she said.

When asked how it is that the Ocean Beach Community Garden grows, Young will say it is the “rainbow of people’s ages.”

“I grew up in England where it was unusual to see young people talking with the elderly. We have some very young people gardening here at OB. I am always delighted when I see the young people talk about gardening with the senior citizens. It helps to close the generation gap,” she said.

“A woman gardener comes with her son Tommy and his friend, and they look at insects through their miniature microscope. This all keeps us young—this fresh air and the young people,” said Young.

Feeding the chickens of the OB Community Garden helps, too. Every day, Young comes to scatter some grain for the hens, all of whom have been given names. “We feed them, and they give us fresh eggs,” she said.

For a complete list of community gardens in San Diego, call the UCSD Cooperative Extension at 1-858-694-2485


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