Mountain View Voice

News - October 18, 2013

Residents want a true community garden in Mountain View

by Daniel DeBolt

In Mountain View, the words "community garden" have been used to describe the tiny city garden plots near Willowgate Street available for a fee to individuals on a waiting list. The experience of a true community garden where anyone can share in and learn the experience of growing food would be new to Mountain View. But there's a group of residents aiming to change that.

"It's more fun to eat food together than to eat alone and it's more fun to grow food together than to grow it alone," said resident Kavita Dave Coombe, a public health expert who is helping to lead an effort which so far has 27 interested residents discussing the idea online.

The group has already made a pitch for what's called a "community garden" or a "demonstration farm" to the city's parks and recreation department, a pitch which was "looked at very favorably," Coombe said. In September the idea was included by city officials in a list of possible uses for a new park on a lush 1.2 acre site at 771 North Rengstorff Avenue known as the Stieper property.

"There are so many people with different skills and expertise who are so gung-ho about getting this going," said Aditi Mogre, a project manager who met Coombe and several other members in a meet-up group for mothers. "It brings a sense of community. When you grow something together you are more invested" in your community.

The group envisions an operation similar to Full Circle Farms in Sunnyvale, or Veggielution in San Jose, and the numerous small community gardens in cities like San Francisco and Brooklyn which aim to produce food on public land for the community while teaching skills to anyone who wants to be involved.

The purpose of such a garden is to "demonstrate the full circle of things, growing food, harvesting food and putting food back into the earth," Coombe said. "It's really a way to demonstrate ways to grow a garden not using a lot of water, while recycling materials and using compost."

Classes could be taught by beekeepers, arborists and gardeners, Coombe said.

"Going to Full Circle Farms is a lot of fun, my daughter will run around and she sees chickens, she sees all sorts of vegetables growing," Coombe said. "She can identify, at 3-years-old, what is ripe and what isn't. That's a big deal. We go to the farmer's market and she says, 'I want those strawberries, those strawberries look good, they look ripe.'"

A focus on teaching children about gardening is of particular interest to the group. Childhood obesity and diabetes rates could be reduced with the right sort of education about food, Coombe says. "If those lessons occur early in life it can only benefit."

Group member Karen D'souza, who works as a quality assurance engineer, said she has a daughter who is 3-years-old that age where kids are "into getting their hands dirty." Part of D'souza's interest in a public garden is that she lives in an apartment, like much of the city's population.

Communal versus individual

The city's "Willowgate Community Garden" is really 84 small plots for individuals, which "are great but they are off limits to the community at large," Coombe said. "There's a huge waiting list."

City officials say gardeners should expect to wait four to five years for a plot, and the cost is $135 a year.

The nature of things at Willowgate was highlighted by a blow-up in 2008 when gardeners told city staff in a public meeting that they felt threatened by the city's attempts to enforce rules about the appearance of the plots, saying they felt the city would take their plots away if they were not "84 model gardeners."

"It reminds me of our years back in the Soviet Union," Russian immigrant Luba Kaplun has said to the Voice. "We are free people (in America), and we really expected to be treated with respect."

The gardeners and city staff seemed to come to terms in the end, with some gardeners calling for regular meetings because ,"We need a place to put this stuff; otherwise it's just individuals being angry," one gardener said.

Fear about losing garden space or complaints about not enough interactions with fellow gardeners would seem quite unusual in the sort of community garden now proposed.

"It's one garden space," Coombe said. "It allows a way to bring the community together, brings families together and people of all ages together."

Exactly where such a garden would go is unclear. At the Stieper property, much of the land is shaded by fruit trees.

"With a demonstration garden, you don't need a lot of space," Coombe said. "That's what's really cool about them you can demonstrate the fact you don't need a lot of space to grow things."

The group has also looked at using one of two small vacant city lots on Shoreline Boulevard near downtown. A downtown site would be ideal, as it would be more "walkable" something the city's residents seem to value more and more, Coombe said.

If the city needs more than one such garden, "there's a lot of underutilized park spaces that are beautiful, a few trees and benches but there's not really anything there," Coombe said. "Gardens would make a lot of sense in those spaces."

The group still has many hoops to jump through and funding to obtain, perhaps from the city or a sponsor. The group may form as non-profit, like Full Circle Farms in Sunnyvale.

For more information, visit Facebook.com/MountainViewUrbanGarden

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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