Dreams Coming True: Connecting with the Land in an Urban Setting

Dreams Coming True is a new Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.

Welcome Cris Gutierrez from Santa Monica Community Gardens! Tell us a little about yourselves:

Santa Monica Community GardenWe are Santa Monica Community Gardens, a group of multigenerational residents, socio-economically, racially and ethnically diverse. Teachers, chiropractors, producers, heath care professionals, casting agents, lifeguards, activists, lawyers, actors, writers, business owners, poets, artists, accountants, dancers, etc., we represent all kinds of professions. We are an eclectic mix—knowledgeable, eccentric, whimsical, serious, sophisticated—as are our aesthetics. As a community of gardeners, whether novices or master gardeners, we value the creative exercise of growing our own food, flowers, and plants organically.

When did this creative dream begin?

On February 24, 1976, the City of Santa Monica formally set up on city land the Man St. Community Gardens consisting of 60 plots. By March 1978, the city council unanimously decided to continue the community gardens indefinitely based on “enthusiastic” response. In September 1979, residents encouraged the City to expand the gardens, and in 2006 two new sites opened, sprouting Santa Monica’s Euclid Park and Park North/South Community Gardens.

How did this project/idea get started?

Local residents, primarily renters, requested that the City provide public land to grow food, flowers, plants, etc. There was an eagerness to be connected to the land in our urban setting.

What makes your project stand out from the crowd?

The Santa Monica Community Gardens provide little oases, retreats, pastoral passageways from postmodern industrial-high tech bustle and traffic. Two blocks from the beach amid boutique shops, vegan/vegetarian restaurants, cafes, office buildings and homes or in the city’s interior commercial districts, the Santa Monica Community Gardens are nestled. They offer a living example of what it means to be sustainable, healthy and humane.

Today, Santa Monica is noted for its international leadership on sustainability, codified in the City’s Sustainability Plan and Sustainability Bill of Rights. The original Main St. Community Gardens helped seed and nourish that consciousness.

We support a vital open space where our environmental commitments and habits can foster biodiversity in our natural ecosystem and among us neighbors as a part of Nature.

What are the goals and intentions of this project?

The City of Santa Monica’s Community Garden Program provides Santa Monica residents with an opportunity to grow their own plants. In addition, the community gardens provide an opportunity for gardeners to exercise, practice sustainability, and meet neighbors with like interests.

How does your project create community?

We create community by being open to each other and by sharing what we know and grow. We swap stories and seeds and share experiences of working in the soil. The Santa Monica Community Gardens are both a resource for a lively community of gardeners and also a resource for the community at large.SM Community Gardens

Many have creative ideas but trouble following through with them. What advice would you give to creative types who start projects eagerly…but then enthusiasm drizzles off?

Dig in. Be amazed, especially when you get stuck or when doubt or tedium bog you down. Breathe in anxiety or uncertainty. Feel the ickyness and absorb it. Exhale and keep moving, or, in our case, keep cultivating. Even mistakes can make you laugh, especially as you learn from them.

Randy, our “compost meister,” tells gardeners that, “You win some and you lose some. Nobody wins all the time. I walked around the garden yesterday to find in many gardens some spectacular examples of good growing near some hopeless failures. Never give up.”

Describe the behind-the-scenes effort of your project. Where do the ideas come from? How many are involved in the process? Does each contributor have a specific role?

Any Santa Monica resident is eligible to have a community garden. We each have a year’s license with the City to be responsible for a garden plot. Assuming we are active in gardening, we can renew that agreement annually. There is a five-year waiting list, which is why we have other programs to extend gardening with partners and homeowners.

Each gardener puts his or her ideas and energy to work tend one’s plot, and each garden has a personality. What makes a gardener a community gardener is being open to each other, and to visitors, willing to engage and contribute ideas and lessons.

It all starts with the life in the soil that a gardener attends to and extends. From mindful sowing with horticulture, vermiculture, agriculture in mind and hand to making compost and building topsoil, cultivating friends, understanding, techniques and practices, all of one’s know-how, skills and passions have a place in gardening. There’s nothing better than to add good carpentry, storytelling, photography, cooking, or a studious mathematics or scientific inquiry to enliven things.

Santa Monica Community Gardens is a partnership with the City and comes under the guidance of the Recreations and Parks Commission. Based on the initiative of the community gardeners, a collaboration of City staff and a Community Gardens Advisory Committee was established and now facilitates our self-government. The community gardeners write the rules and regulations and license provisions, which are vetted and administered by the City.

The advisory committee meets bimonthly and is comprised of site representatives who are elected for a two-year term. There is a chair and vice-chair of the advisory committee. Meetings are public, open to all gardeners, or anyone interested in our activities. We invite ideas.

We have a liaison to the City’s Task Force on the Environment, which has recognized that increasing the number of and participation in community gardens is an important measurement to add to our City’s Sustainability Report Card.

What’s been the hardest part about getting it off the ground?

Actually, getting the community gardens off the ground has been quite successful. What’s challenging is helping people appreciate that gardening takes effort and time. It is not an entitlement but an opportunity to respect.

What have you learned?

Randy says it best, “ . . . slow down and see what happens. A good gardener, more than being a hard worker, is a good observer. See what the birds and insects are doing in the garden, look for the first seed sprouts, and watch how the plants in the big bed grow. Good observing takes time and patience.”

Being patient applies to our neighborliness as well as our practice.

Have there been any unexpected surprises?

Surprises, like microclimates, abound. What might grow well one year suddenly does not. We are witnessing definite shifts in weather due to climate change. For example, in the last five years, the Bagrada bug, a small stinkbug from southern Africa that thrives in intense heat, is a new invasive species. Bagradas suck the juice of Brassica crops—arugula, broccoli, kale, cabbage, radishes, etc. One of our master gardeners, Susan, indentified them and with the help of others gardeners, Shirley and Catherine, we concocted a potion, full of garlic and cayenne, that deters them.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about starting your project?

One typical misconception is that one has to buy a lot of stuff to garden well. Just as all life recycles, there is much we have in our homes that can be recycled in gardening—compostable kitchen scraps, paper; containers for plantings, etc. Save those along with one’s seeds.

Another misconception is that a garden takes care of itself. A gardener may not be the prime mover but s/he is a critical player.

What are some ways you promote your project?

Mostly, we do not need to promote the community gardens. People come by and want to take part.

To help us relate our story, we host open houses, make public presentations, partner with community groups, submit material for local media, and present to elected leaders or city authorities on the council, commissions and task forces

We do use some social media and online communication.

Creating something is one skill. Marketing and promoting it is an entirely different skill set. How has that gone for you? Shocked by the amount of work marketing takes? Or pleasantly surprised?

It is key to have the community gardens speak for themselves. That’s the best marketing.

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Any marketing mistakes you would avoid?

Don’t just talk or write about a project. Show it for people to feel and experience.

What social network has worked best for you?

Our best “social network” is in-person in real time and place, face-to-face, breathing in the scents of flora, fauna, soil and air.

We’re still exploring the online variety. YouTube and Instagram have proved fruitful. Facebook is okay, but the gardeners with blogs give the best portrayals.

What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?

Find an open space with others and dig-in—on the ground, at schools, on rooftops, walls or avenues. Start in your own back or front yard, on your windowsill, balcony or patio.

Learn from and team up with the many community gardeners wherever they are. There is a Los Angeles network and American association of community gardeners. With Will Allen’s People Power in Milwaukee to SLUG in San Francisco, LifeLab in Santa Cruz, Tilth in Seattle or the projects in Oakland, Portland, Chicago, NYC, teamwork can be quite fulfilling. There are growing communities throughout the world. Folks are mapping available public and some amenable private properties to garden.

Plant seeds and see life take off in the garden and yourself.

Where do you see this project in five years?

In five years, our hope is to see gardens in as many places in Santa Monica as possible—at our new Expoline transit station and our parks, on rooftops and walls, at cafés, along green streets, at homes and schools, etc. Those that already exist we need to help flourish. Those we imagine, we need to make real.

We will be documenting the history of Santa Monica Community Gardens in print and online.

The fence enclosing the Santa Monica Gardens will start to be artwork for local craftspeople to create together.

What question do you wish that someone would ask about your creative dream, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it.

The question that I wish people would ask is “How is making your dream come true important for the world?”

My answer is “Gardening, especially community gardening, heals and restores us and makes us whole. Gardening helps create peace.”

How can we find your creative dream come true?

We are currently accessible online at:
Smgov.net/CommunityGardens
Facebook.com/SMCommunityGardens

Learn a little more at: whodecidessantamonica.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/whats-in-a-community-garden/


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About Suzanne

Suzanne Woods Fisher writes bestselling, award winning fiction and non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish for Revell Books. Her interest in the Plain People began with her Old Order German Baptist grandfather, raised in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Suzanne's app, Amish Wisdom, delivers a daily Amish proverb to your phone or iPad. She writes a bi-monthly column for Christian Post and Cooking & Such magazine. She lives with her family in California and raises puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. To Suzanne's way of thinking, you can't take life too seriously when a puppy is running through your house with someone's underwear in its mouth.

Comments

  1. Cris–Thank you so very much for sharing the story about the Santa Monica Community Gardens! Loved discovering more about them. A month ago, I was walking in downtown Santa Monica and was delighted to find flourishing gardens, just a block or so away from the ocean! I walked through them and took all kinds of pictures–each garden has a distinctive flavor to it. The gardener’s special touch!
    Thanks for taking time for this interview and inspiring my readers!
    Warmly, Suzanne