Mt. Hope Community Garden
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Cats are a problem. We gotta enclose the areas where we’re growing.” Diane Moss breaks it down for a visitor. “You gotta be careful with your compost. It’s composting,” she explains, “and that brings the rats. And the rats bring the cats.”

The Mt. Hope Community Garden in Southeast is a fecund reservation in the midst of tumbledown backyards overgrown with vetch and weeds yellow as dried flax. There’s a short breeze coming off the bay today, but it does little to cool the hot sun beating down on the garden. A security fence cloaked in bright green and lavender passion flower vine dims the heavy commute on Market Street, but the 805 freeway overpass broadcasts a constant blare of car noise.

Moss, her coif kept in check with a headband, wears all black in spite of the heat, but she won’t be here long. “I’m not a farmer. I’m a community organizer. And right now, I’m organizing space for neighborhood parks and community gardens. I’m doing the same thing up in Compton [her mother still lives there] as I do here.”

Moss is 57. She says she was born in South Central in Los Angeles. “We moved to Compton when I was four. So I been there,” she says in a way that implies she’s experienced the worst of the worst of West Coast ghetto living. She remembers that her father kept a small backyard garden. “No, I didn’t help out, except for watering. He always told us to water.” Moss has lived here in Southeast for decades.

On this weekday morning, the Mt. Hope Community Garden gate, padlocked as a rule, stands open. Inside, a thin woman in straw gardening hat and blue denim shovels mulch into a wheelbarrow, which she will roll down one of the many paths that direct foot traffic around the raised garden beds to one of her own. Even this late into the growing season there is plenty: snap peas, peppers, and squash. Collard greens on stalks as tall as a person. The kale has gone brown in the heat.

Time doesn’t exactly stand still here in the garden, but it doesn’t have the same bearing to someone who waits for things to sprout and eventually bear fruit. “We’re going to have produce for sale in here one day,” Moss allows. “We’re just not ready yet. People have been asking us, but we’re not ready.”

But somehow, the Mt. Hope Community Garden has become a destination, at least to some. “People stop here, and they take selfies with the garden. I’m not sure what that’s about.”

Moss’s right-hand man here is a lithe, retired school teacher who says his name is Kadumu. “We’re growing our dirt here.” He smiles, and he puts down his shovel.

“Growing dirt” is a concept I will come to hear about several times today.

Kadumu wears leather gloves, a clean white T-shirt, sleeveless work shirt, sweats, and dusty yard boots. A tan ball cap covers his head. “This garden is two years old. When we started, it looked like that.” He points across Market Street to a hardscrabble vacant lot. “It’s all clay, weeds, and stones,” he explains. “That’s what we started with. But now look.” He walks over to a raised bed, roots around, and offers up a handful of soil. It’s the dark-brown color of ground coffee, it smells loamy, and it’s interspersed with those tiny little white spongy flakes.

“I did go to Home Depot,” he admits.

Outside, on the other side of the fence, a passerby on the sidewalk in sport shirt and slacks gives Kadumu a shout-out: “Lookin’ good!”

“How you doin’, man?” The gardener and the man bump fists through the chain link.

“Lookin’ real good.”

Kadumu smiles.

Moss stands in the shade under a garden canopy and explains how the business works here. “The third Saturday of the month, everybody comes out and helps everybody else out.”

“I come here every Tuesday and volunteer,” Kadumu chimes in.

“We share our knowledge,” Moss says.

A young man in a faded but otherwise spotless T-shirt bearing the Crawford High School logo approaches. “We’d like to see about getting three spaces.” I tell him that I graduated from Crawford; he seems nonplussed. His companions, three women, are all older than he. They speak among each other in a rapid, almost musical Asian tongue. A jetliner on approach to Lindbergh Field makes them talk louder. Moss quotes garden-plot rental prices to them.

The rent on Kadumu’s plot ($5 per month) is paid by the Black Storytellers of San Diego, of which he is both a member and a storyteller. He clears fibrous dead zucchini vines out of the small plot. The smell of the torn vegetation, rising in the heat, is almost minty. Kadumu explains that the Storytellers got the plot with some grant funding.

“It was in several pieces,” the money. “Some of it had to do with music, some had to do with food. So we got a garden bed, and we grew some food.” Which they timed to ripen in conjunction with a reading by poet Nikki Grimes. “We hooked up with the Monarch School — they have a little garden, too — and we took our food there, and a chef cooked it.”

Kadumu sits in the shade; a white cabbage moth flits around his zucchini leaves. “You must first tell your own story — your own truth,” he offers. “It gives people a sense of who you are. Then, you can tell them fiction. You’ve heard the one about the scorpion and the frog?” He grins. “I’ve morphed that one all the way out to where it’s now a squirrel and a UPS truck.”

Moss introduces another Mt. Hope gardener. His name is Francisco. She says he is gearing up to help her produce food for a community event in October. Francisco wears aviator shades, jeans, a T-shirt, and a racing cap. He says he only uses organic fertilizers such as blood meal, fish meal, and coffee grounds to “grow” his dirt.

Mt. Hope sits in a mild coastal-influenced climate zone, which allows seedlings to sprout in winter.

Mt. Hope sits in a mild coastal-influenced climate zone, which allows seedlings to sprout in winter.

“For nitrogen,” he says, “the coffee grounds.” Fallen passion fruits, ripe and purple, lay ready for the taking in the loam below the garden’s voluminous vines. He sends some of them home with me. “How did I learn about gardening?” By watching YouTube, he says.

Before it was collapsed...

...into the Centre City Development Corporation, Nancy Lytle served as assistant vice president at the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation. Prior to that, she’d worked in a similar capacity for the City of Chula Vista, where she was the assistant director for the planning and building department.

“I was with the SEDC when Diane Moss came in and asked if one of the properties that we managed could be used as a community garden,” she says. “We managed two city-owned vacant lots on Market Street. They were both weedy, fenced-in lots, one across the street from the other. And from time to time we had to remove the weeds and mend the fences. They were both vandalized. We had homicides, and there was drug dealing reported to be taking place there. We had people doing property management at both, and that cost the taxpayers money. It gets expensive.”

Lytle appreciated Moss’s ambition to convert weeds to food, even if only on a temporary basis. “This seemed like a legitimate thing to do. Our board liked it, and we moved forward.” The year was 2010. They didn’t get very far.

“That’s when we ran into the ordinance police,” Moss explains ruefully. In truth, there are no actual ordinance police.

“But, there was no provision for agricultural use in the city limits,” Lytle explains.

“San Diego to me is a very backwards place,” Moss says. “It was an easy win for people, just talking about people growing food. But it took an extra year of going around to meetings and planning committees and hearings. It cost $29,000 to pay for the first wave of change,” she says of the money paid out by the SEDC. “The development office — that’s who we paid the money to, to change the language of the ordinance.”

“What she did,” Lytle says, “is she put a group together and changed the laws.” Later, Lytle would describe Moss as a “very soft-spoken but effective communicator, extremely friendly. And, she had a lot of good connections. There’s not that many people who can work across all the connections. She partnered with county growers and politicians. She was able to bridge all their gaps and to speak everybody’s language.”

The County Department of Health and Human Services got involved in Moss’s vision, too. “They were big on community gardening as a means of reducing obesity in Southeast,” Lytle recalls. “Mayor [Jerry] Sanders thought it was a good idea. And the city-council vote was unanimous. It was 2011, I think, that the ordinance was changed.”

Since that time, due to Moss’s efforts, Lytle says more community gardens have sprouted within city limits, including the 20-acre University of San Diego study garden in Southeast on Olive View. “Urban agriculture is what we call it. That’s what Moss did.”

The next round of changes issued by the planning commission allowed for bee-keeping and chicken coops within city limits. Lytle talks about her neighbors in Mission Hills who now have laying chickens in their backyard. “And somehow goats got woven into that. I don’t know how, but you can have a goat in the city now. This all came through the city planning department within the last five years.”

“Two goats, I think that’s what the law says. I don’t know why,” Moss explains. “I think they have some kind of social needs, goats do.”

In the end, Lytle was impressed. Now retired from civic life, she works with Moss as a volunteer.

Black and brown people don’t like farming

“We tried to teach a class at San Diego City College called ‘Returning to Farming,’” Moss says. “It did not go over well. Black and brown people do not want to get back to farming.” Does Moss have a vegetable garden of her own? “In my backyard? I have some raised beds,” she says. “No time to plant yet, but, I’m growing my dirt.” Moss, who says she makes no money from her agricultural pursuits, holds down a part-time day-job working with the local Be There San Diego coalition for cardiac health.

“How did I get into activism? People ask me that all the time. This is just what I know. I asked my folks, could I go to college? And when I got to UCSD, it was culture shock.”

The year was 1976. “Up to then, everything I knew was African-American. Everything. My neighbors, all the shops in my neighborhood, family, holidays, everything. And UCSD is not black, not by a long shot.”

Moss says campus mentors like Dr. Fostina Celise nurtured her through the culture shock. “What did she teach me? That because you’re poor doesn’t mean you are sick or should be treated differently.”

Moss organized political rallies on campus. After college she worked for activist organizations such as Children Having Children, in Southeast.

“I came on as a health educator and became executive director. I was there for about 20 years.” A leadership role followed, with Moss becoming executive director of Project New Village.

“Before that, we ran a neighborhood center on Logan Avenue. That’s a community unto itself — 577 units. I know that because that was my universe for a long time. Weird things happened there.” She helped run a center for kids. “A pool table and computers. It was a safe place for kids to be after school until their parents could get home from work.”

In 2008, Moss decided to focus on what she calls food justice.

“We always just thought you get what you get in terms of food,” within the boundaries of Southeast: rolled tacos, fried chicken, fast food, and marginal produce and meats in the area markets. “Do you know how hard it is to get a healthy bowl of soup down here?” She says it is next to impossible.

Swiss chard growing in the Mt. Hope Community Garden

Swiss chard growing in the Mt. Hope Community Garden

“And at the same time I was looking for the next thing to do. I decided on a farmers’ market and on some kind of community garden.” The farmers’ market — People’s Produce Night Market — meets every Wednesday at 5 p.m. in the Big Lots parking lot at 1655 Euclid Avenue, just north of State Route 94.

“The old People’s Produce was on 47th. You could see Lincoln High School from there. It wasn’t a good spot. It was invisible. People drove by real fast. There’s no parking and there’s no community support. All of those problems will be fixed by the new location. We’re gonna change to a night market so, that way, if you’re too hip for a farmers’ market, you’ll come to a night market with the ambience.” She describes partnerships with both the community activist Urban Collaborative and UCSD’s retail program.

“This month, I should get my permit to be certified so that the Mt. Hope Community Garden can sell produce to any farmers’ market or public event. Why a permit? You have to prove you grew it. The County Agriculture Department of Weights and Measures division, they come out to inspect. This is one of the more fair departments. They straight up tell you the rules. I got other departments to be angry with. Not this department. They give us directions, they even give us seeds.”

But Moss thinks they’ll be selling fresh Mt. Hope produce in her new and improved night farmers’ market long before her produce ends up in restaurants, which is one of her prime goals — from (urban) farm to table, here in Southeast, which up to now has been so unheard of as to not even be an idea on anybody’s radar. The scheme could work, but it is not without its challenges. “You gotta be consistent to be in restaurants,” is the reason why, she says. Moss play-acts an imaginary phone call between her and a restaurant buyer: “I got your pepper, and I got ’em all year long. See, that’s what a chef wants to hear. Consistency.”

“It’s all a matter of economics and convenience,” Ron Troyano explains. “The chefs are busy, and they need reliable inputs at a good price for the quality. If [the Mt. Hope Community Garden] can service that need, it will work.”

Troyano ran Alchemy before he sold the North Park restaurant a few years ago. Now, he sits on the board of San Diego Hunger Coalition, the Front Burner Fund, and is a founding member of the San Diego Food System Alliance. As such, he is part of Moss’s advisory group.

“Unique produce options, things that are not available on the other markets and potentially an exclusive growing relationship,” are needed for Moss to make the urban garden-to-table dream a reality, he says. And, some legislature.

“A big aid would be for the city and county to adopt AB551 [the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act]. This will allow more urban farming and the systemic drivers for a supply chain will follow.”

When Troyano had Alchemy, he bought product from boutique growers — what Moss hopes to become. “And, we advised Seeds @ City Urban Farm, a one-acre student-run garden at City College to do just that. It was a minor success. The changes Diane [Moss] and I would like to make will ensure major success.”

Moss says her master plan is in two stages — that produce sold at the new night market will generate enough money to pay a salary to keep a person employed at the Mt. Hope Community Garden to keep things consistent. But first things first. Along with the growing of dirt, the community garden needs to grow a lot of green.

“Right now? We got zucchini. Lettuce coming in three months, they tell me. And beans,” Moss says. “The beans, for whatever reason, are doing good.”

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