The land belongs to the city, Mercurio says, and the Escondido Community Garden leases it from the city for a dollar-a-year type of agreement, which, according to Mercurio, is “periodically [paid] in vegetables.”
“They’re a very big supporter, and I’d like to think that they’re proud of us,” she says. “We feel really, really lucky right now. There’s a great big construction site next door, and that’s going to be a brand-new police and fire station. For most of the gardens that are on public land, when something like that happens, the community garden goes.”
The garden is laid out on a long stretch of land that is bordered on one side by a dead-ending gravel path. “No unauthorized vehicles,” admonishes a sign at the entrance, trying to keep intrusive car traffic to a minimum.
Each plot is lined with gray cinder blocks, some raised higher than others; tilled earth rises in neat rows within them. Some plants are just starting to sprout, while others are getting ready for harvest. They are well and carefully tended. Some gardeners employ creative means for staking and sheltering, for instance, using curved branches to create lattices for their growing vines.
This is, in part, Mercurio points out, due to the differing ethnic backgrounds of the gardeners who work here, many of whom have extensive experience in their home countries.
“We have people from China, from the Philippines, from Iran, from France, from Mexico, so they’re from all over the world,” Mercurio says. “Many languages are spoken out here. We have seniors that are living nearby in the Salvation Army residence, and they are Chinese. So we have a group of Chinese men and women who walk over here each morning and each afternoon, and they’re probably the best gardeners out here.”
The cultural diversity, while a point of pride for the garden, at times causes tensions.
“The garden is a microcosm of the world, and the issues and the problems are the same,” Mercurio says. “People come from different countries, and perhaps those countries notoriously don’t get along, and I find they try to bring that into the garden.”
This was not always easily detected. Mercurio reports that, at times, the origin of a dispute would not be clear until it was pointed out that, perhaps, the individuals involved came from countries that have historically feuded with one another.
“I think the biggest issue is communication, because we have the different languages and the different culture,” she says. “What one person says is not what another person thinks they understand them to say.”
Another issue that has popped up, says Mercurio, is the use of space.
“In a lot of the Asian cultures, you don’t waste space,” she explains. “Space is at a premium, and the whole idea of these paths and these open areas is difficult for some of our Asian gardeners to understand. They tend to want to plant just anywhere. We try to keep rules — you stay inside your plot — and I turn around two days later, and I’ve got plants that are in spots where they’re not supposed to be. That type of thing.”
People garden for different reasons, Mercurio says. “It provides exercise for [people]. It provides mental therapy for those who maybe need a little bit of an oasis, an escape from the rest of the world.”
“And, for some, it’s food that they’re growing to eat tonight.”
NEW ROOTS COMMUNITY FARM
LOCATION: 54th Street and Chollas Parkway, San Diego
DUES: Sliding scale
ELIGIBILITY: 20 plots will be available to the public
WAITING LIST: N/A
SOIL TYPE: Clay, but will be amended with compost/mulch/manure
PLANTS: Fruits and vegetables
The New Roots Community Farm was, at the time of this writing, a project in process [The grand opening was September 10). Just off of Chollas Parkway and 54th Street in City Heights, it’s currently being prepped for an irrigation line, and looks like a cleared lot with scattered tunnels of dug earth.
But, soon, says Amy Lint, Community Development Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, it will be a full-scale organic garden designed to serve the growing refugee population of low-income, urban San Diego. Along with Bilali Muya, who works with the Somali-Bantu Organization, she and her team are laying the groundwork for the garden, which, she estimates, will end up costing around $200,000. The money comes from a surplus at the International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to resettling refugees from all over the world in San Diego, and, with an influx of people arriving from agriculturally centered countries, the need for a garden arose.
“There was some talk about ‘Well, what kind of support could we give this new [population] arriving to the United States? What kind of support could we give them in terms of food or nutrition?’ ” Lint says. “They come from an agrarian society and what they wanted was land [on which] to grow their own food. So we thought, ‘Okay, how would [we] do that? We can’t give people individual farms, they’re all resettled right in City Heights in dense area, but what we could turn this into is more of an urban farm or a community farm.’ So that’s how this project got started.”
To use the land, which is city owned, Lint and the International Rescue Committee had to obtain a three-year permit, which cost $20,000.
The parcel — a little over two acres—will have 80 plots. Each plot will be 600 square feet, enough, Lint says, to grow about 40 percent of a food-stamp budget.
The idea, Lint says, is to create what she calls a “microenterprise,” in which gardeners, who will mostly be recent and not-so-recent refugees from places like Somalia, will be able to grow enough food not only to feed themselves but to sell.
“We try and get people into the job market, and, of course, in this economy right now, it’s even more challenging,” Lint says. “But our organization is a partner in starting the City Heights Farmers Market, so if they’re growing enough food, like small vegetables and such, and they have extra that they can’t eat, they can actually take a small amount to the market.”