“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” - Henry David Thoreau
by Brendan McGarry
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“The Backyard Homestead,” a book about subsisting on your yard, sits prominently on my bookshelf. Every once in a while I squint down my street thinking of the back cover. “From a quarter of an acre, you can harvest 1,400 eggs, 50 pounds of wheat, 60 pounds of fruit, 2,000 pounds of vegetables, 280 pounds of pork, and 75 pounds of nuts.” Adrift in my back-to-the-land fantasy, it’s easy to view “unused” spaces (say someone’s lawn or an empty cement pad) as a void for growing food. Maybe I won’t convince my landlords to let me raise chickens and pigs on our rooftop, but with several P-Patches within spitting distance of Capitol Hill, I can grow myself organic produce.
Seattle has 44 community gardens, or P-Patches. No matter where you live, one is reasonably close, with half a dozen in the Capitol Hill area. I’ve always been convinced of their importance, growing up with parents who preached the benefits of organic, homegrown produce. That said, until recently I didn’t know what the “P” in P-Patch stood for. No, it’s not a cute reference to legumes. The “P” is a nod to our first community garden, northeast Seattle’s Picardo Farm. Once a real farm, as Seattle grew, it lay fallow; in 1973 the land was bought by the city, and the first community garden started. “Community,” is an essential aspect of P-Patches.
Seattlites aren’t explicitly unfriendly, but there’s an initial ice sheet that sometimes needs to be punched through. Do you know all of your neighbors? I’ll admit that I don’t. Sometimes we need common ground (literally) on which to build community. In dense urban places, it’s easy to get caught up in anonymity. P-Patches offer ample neighborly interaction, which can, in turn, decrease crime, encourage stewardship of neighborhoods, and generally make us happier. As Seattle’s P-Patches are expanding, places like Summit Slope Park’s Unpaving Paradise transform ugly parking lots into a space for the community to unite. Without huge amounts of public support and community collaboration, such land-use wouldn’t happen.
In 2008, the Parks and Greenspaces Levy passed, giving $2 million to P-Patches. Initially, this money was for four new gardens, but with public effort, 22 additional gardens were created or expanded. $150,000 alone went into finishing Unpaving Paradise, with Broadway Hill and several other locations in the works nearby. The Levy Oversight Committee even reallocated an inflationary $472,000 to P-Patches, which raised the number to 28 new and expanded gardens, with approximately 737 plots. These additional expansions will be finished by 2014, but they need long-term continuity as their story is never over.
Clearly, the City of Seattle sees value in P-Patches, because while they thrive with community involvement, government support for land purchase and major improvements are also required. As the current projects finish, further funding is needed to maintain and expand the gardens, possibly in the form of a levy in August or November of 2014. The Parks Legacy Citizen’s Advisory Committee will be providing suggestions to the mayor and City Council by February of 2014, and welcomes public involvement (visit www.seattle.gov/parks/legacy/committee.htm).
Why do we need community gardens? Shouldn’t we just support local farms? Not everyone can afford farmer’s markets or organic produce at Whole Foods. Many expansion sites were chosen because they are in lower income neighborhoods. No one is economically excluded; those who can’t afford the minimal annual fee aren’t turned away. Ultimately, all that’s required of a gardener is their own soil amendments, seeds and maintenance, plus a meager eight hours annually toward communal upkeep.
Not all P-Patches are exactly the same. Most are sectioned into individual plots, but some only grow food for food banks (28,500 pounds of produce were donated in 2012). Others aren’t divided, and are farmed communally. The Beacon Food Forest is a permaculture projects for all to enjoy. The uniting feature is that the Department of Neighborhoods, which oversees P-Patches, is encouraging civic engagement in our landscape, breathing room in the urban sea, providing reconnection with food and land. Facets of food security, environmental education and ecological service are lodged in all of gardens, as well.
Seattle’s P-Patch program currently has 85 gardens and 2,908 plots, the second largest in the country. The current 6,780 gardeners may simply be growing organic food, but they are engaging in a larger vision for sustainable urban development. Furthermore, P-Patches are egalitarian projects, not only supplementing lower income diets, but bolstering unity. All types, from Somalian immigrants to 4th-generation Seattlites, garden in P-Patches.
This all sounds utopian and very “Seattle.” Yet, while some garden partially for survival, I’d hazard that all enjoy their time outside getting dirty in a patch. Walking through tiny Unpaving Paradise, with skyscrapers visible in the background, the city humming with activity, these spaces are easy to enjoy, even if you aren’t gardening there. To get involved visit: www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch.