Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, of a garden, in his 1854 collection of stories Mosses from an Old Manse: “I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation.” A century and a half later, set against the desert backdrop of San Diego, rather than the damp of Salem, Massachusetts, local, avid gardeners are just as proud of their work. A handful of them, representing six public gardens throughout the city, sat down to talk plants, soil, and, most importantly, the bond forged between their communities and gardening.
HAROLD E. SMERDU COMMUNITY GARDEN
LOCATION: 250 Laguna Drive, Carlsbad
PLOTS: 48, 20’ x 30’
ELIGIBILITY: Must be a Carlsbad resident to get first priority
WAITING LIST: 80 people
SOIL TYPE: Clay amended by gardeners individually
PLANTS: Vegetables and flowers, no tall trees
Twenty-five years ago, Harold Smerdu had a plan: to bring a community garden to the city of Carlsbad. After talks with city hall officials, a vacant parcel on Laguna Drive was named the site, and the garden began to take shape.
Hugging the slight grade of hilly Laguna Drive, the garden is across from the town library and in plain view of anyone taking a stroll up or down the street.
A sandy walkway divides the garden. Plots lie on either side behind a mishmash of fencing, as the gardeners are responsible for enclosing their spaces. In the background, palm trees wave in the wind against a backdrop of blue sky.
Vegetables of all types are in the process of ripening here; greens, peas, even artichokes. Cacti are interspersed between plants, aloe and agave, too. Flowers, in vibrant pinks, oranges, and yellows edge the plots, adding a dash of color.
The garden is co-headed by City of Carlsbad Parks and Recreation supervisor Michael Bliss and his colleague Connie Kessler.
“It’s pretty pain free,” he says, of running the garden, as he sits on a picnic bench just outside it. “The gardeners that come out here really love what they’re doing, and many of these people have had these plots for years.”
The turnover isn’t high; there are currently 80 people on the waiting list, which, Bliss says, dates back to 2006.
“I would say the average [time] could probably work out to be about ten years, easy,” Bliss says. “We’ve had some gardeners who have been here a long time. We’ve got 80 people on the waiting list, so people know, ‘Yeah, I want to garden,’ but you put them on a list and tell them ‘Oh, you’re the 81st…’ It’s tough. It shows you how popular it is. It’s a shame. It would be nice if it were bigger.”
The city foots the bill for much of the garden, including water and trash pickup, and the Carlsbad parks department spreads the wood chips across the walkway. Whenever needed, an irrigation technician is on call as well. The city spends $200/month, according to Michael Bliss.
“There’s some staff involvement,” Bliss says. “You can’t let it completely go. You have to make sure it stays fairly maintained.”
As for rules, according to Bliss, it’s mostly “common sense stuff. You don’t want to keep a lot of junk in your little garden plot, You want to have it maintained, you want to continue on the upkeep, you don’t want to let it grow over with weeds. Once you have a garden plot, you don’t give it to someone else.”
Generally, he doesn’t have many problems with rule-breakers, and if someone inadvertently steps outside the boundaries, they are usually cooperative. At the time of this writing, there is a problematic tree that Bliss and his team have decided must be removed.
“We’ve just got to talk to the gardener,” he says. “One of the gardeners said, ‘It’s starting to shade my area a little too much,’ and the tree itself is getting to be too big, so we want to make sure we take care of that. We’ve sent her a letter, just letting her know that we’re going to have to take that tree out.”
Aside from that, things are generally quiet around the garden. Bliss has noticed recently that a lot of neighboring cities want to start their own as well.
“I think it’s gotten a lot of press recently, more so because the Obamas in the White House are talking about having a vegetable garden,” he says. “Governor Schwarzenegger is trying to get something started around the mansion called a Victory Garden. People are jumping on the bandwagon — ‘Shoot, if they’ve got one…’ ”
He glances at the apricot tree.
“It’s a great community asset,” he says.
ESCONDIDO COMMUNITY GARDEN
LOCATION: Centre City Parkway between El North Parkway and Mission Ave, Escondido
PLOTS: 80+, 4’ x 20’
DUES: $20/6 months, $30/year
WAITING LIST: 7 or 8
SOIL TYPE: Mushroom compost
PLANTS: Vegetables, fruit, and flowers
The Encinitas Community Garden is hard to miss. It lines the side of Centre City Parkway, a main drag that leads to the 78 freeway, and tall plants and the roof of a red shed are visible from the road.
Cars race along Centre City Parkway as Beth Mercurio, the garden’s founder, sits under a trellis of wisteria.
“[The garden] was an idea that I had because of seeing the City Heights garden,” she says, referring to a now-defunct spot. “They had large, dancing wooden vegetables on the fence outside their garden. I was lost down in San Diego and that’s what I found. And I said, ‘What the heck is this? Let me write the phone number down.’ It started from there. I started contacting people, met a couple of people in the city who were willing to listen…”
Now, the garden, which sits on what Mercurio — her official title is Garden Manager — estimates to be just over two acres of land, is run by a board.
“We have master composters [and] we have gardeners here that just give us their input,” she says. “There are about eight people that run it, and we’re a well-oiled machine at this point. The garden’s been in existence for 15 years. Many of the people on the board have been on the board the whole time.”