Often found sporting a waistcoat and a woolen flat cap, James Gielow is a self-described “Neo-Rennaisance man — an artist at heart and hand, with the soul of a scientist and a philosopher.” He spends his days as the senior mount maker at San Diego Museum of Art, and his afternoons and weekends tending his chickens, tilling the soil, and chronicling his urban farming adventures in his blog, Mind Your Dirt.
“I live in Mountain View. You know where that is? No? Most people don’t,” says Gielow, of the San Diego neighborhood named for its clear view of San Miguel Mountain. “It’s six miles east of downtown, super close and central. Also a total food desert. The shittiest examples of fast-food chains and poor grocery stores devoid of quality produce — except Northgate Market, that place is amazing. But apart from that, no farmers markets, no affordable, healthy food stuffs for miles.”
James Gielow's back yard in Mountain View
Prepping for a chicken run
In a policy report by San Diego State University’s Department of Geography, researchers argue that instead of a food desert — “a neighborhood without convenient access to fresh and affordable foods”— Southeast San Diego is a food swamp, “characterized by an abundance of fast food restaurants and junk food retailers.” Their argument is that the prevalence of high-calorie, low-nutrition food is just as damaging as the absence of food.
Prior to moving to Mountain View, Gielow says he “bounded from one meager apartment complex to another with only a pittance of growing spaces.” He made the most of his space limitations by exploring the miniature world of bonsai. He wrote in one of his many bonsai-related posts, “The art of bonsai is not for those with short attention spans, it takes decades to get a good specimen.”
Upon settling into his new home with its 7000-square-foot yard, “I immediately panicked and made tons of mistakes. Growing the wrong things at the wrong time, not planting SoCal-specific plants, wasting too much water, etc.” But now, he is proud to say that after a few years, “I have it perfectly locked in and bent to my will.” His lush land currently includes a grafted tree with five kinds of cherries, an apple tree, tangerines, plums, peaches, passion fruit, pomegranate, blue Java bananas, lemons, two varieties of grapes, a strawberry patch, and a seasonal vegetable garden.
That much land at an affordable price was a major draw, but it was a sign in a vacant lot around the corner that solidified Gielow’s decision to buy a home in Mountain View. “It read, ‘Future site for the Ocean View Growing Grounds,’” he remembers. “A community garden was the final straw that made me want to live there.”
Ocean View Growing Grounds is situated on a 20,000 square-foot lot on Ocean View Boulevard a couple blocks west of Interstate 805, about a mile south of Highway 94. In 2012, was one of over 800 vacant lots in the San Diego area. University of California San Diego’s Bioregional Center for Sustainability and Science partnered with the Global Action Research Center to develop the land as a community garden and research and learning center.
Director of Global Action Research Center Paul Watson credits landowner Harold Georgiou for helping to make the project possible. “[Harold] really supported the initial development of this,” Watson says. “He pays for all the water, gives us the land for $1 a year, and he and his sister and mother come down to help with the weeding. He even built the shed we have for tools.” It helped that the city of San Diego covered the $20,000 cost of soil testing — the land was a “brownfield,” meaning it was once an industrial or commercial site, and therefore at risk for contamination.
As for Georgiou, Watson says, “Real estate is his business. He owns property all over the world, and he has a number of parcels here [in San Diego], some vacant like this land we have, which he bought 30 years ago and never developed anything on it — it’s been vacant for that long. Just think about that length of time — it’s created more problems for him than anything. People throw trash, dump old cars, periodically the city comes in and forces him to clean it up, which costs him money. For him, for a dollar a year, to do something positive with [the land] is worth it, and turns it into an asset for the community.”
Though he grew up with a garden nearby in rural Long Island, Watson always considered working in his grandmother’s garden a “chore that I didn’t like.” Years after leaving home and living in urban areas, he laughs with his community organizing partner, Dr. Bill Oswald, about the fact that he now looks forward to his time in the garden every Saturday morning.
When beginning this project, Watson and Oswald looked for people who were already growing food on their properties to help out, as they were just learning the ins and outs of gardening themselves. They didn’t have to look far, because Gielow was right around the corner. “I volunteered there for the first few years,” says Gielow, many of whose blogs are detailed do-it-yourself posts such as “How to repot a bonsai,” “Tried and true ways to get rid of gophers,” and “How to train your dog not to kill your chickens.”
Among other volunteer projects, Gielow oversaw the construction of a dozen 12-by-4-foot raised beds, doing much of the hauling and hammering himself. Overall, he says, he spent his time at Ocean View Growing Grounds “building what needed building, teaching what needed teaching, and just breaking my back trying to transform the soil. It was a great experience and a perfect way to fight the spreading food desert disease in lower income neighborhoods.”
The median annual income for residents in Mountain View is $21,000.
There are 88 community gardens between Oceanside and the Tijuana border, the largest being the Tijuana River Valley Community Garden, which boasts 210 gardening plots, each 30-by-30 feet, and six quarter-acre plots which rent for $1200 a year. That garden advertises that “on any given day, you can hear three or four different languages being spoken,” as well as plots that feature worldly crops including “nopales, Laotian cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes.”