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July 22, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 22, 2005

Plot twist Plot twist (July 22, 2005)

Mountain Viewl green thumbs find peace, companionship in city's community gardens

By Mari Sapina-Kerkhove

To Larry Rippere, few things are as satisfying as digging his hands through fresh soil, planting a seed and watching it grow into a tomato vine, an artichoke or a strawberry plant.

For the past 29 years, the Mountain View hobby gardener and his wife, Martha, have rented a plot at the city's Willowgate Community Garden, sharing their passion for homegrown produce along with tools, neighborly chats and sound pieces of advice with dozens of fellow gardeners.

"My wife Martha and I are pretty fanatical about Willowgate," Rippere says, proud of having raised his children on the garden's produce. "When you live in a community with little or no backyard, it's just a wonderful idea."

Located at the end of Andsbury Avenue, the roughly one-acre field, with its 84 plots lush with vines, vegetables, herbs and flowers, is a beloved getaway for local green thumbs.

And it's not the only community garden in Mountain View. The city's senior center also has a quarter-acre gardening area reserved for residents age 55 and up. The 62 neatly kept 16-by-5-foot plots are currently at a temporary location at the Hetch Hetchy well site on Escuela Avenue while the new senior center is under construction.
Locals only

Both community gardens are for Mountain View residents only. And with their reasonable rental fees -- a plot at Willowgate goes for $32.25 per year, and plots at the senior center are free of charge -- they are in high demand. Currently there are three-year waiting lists for both gardens, a fact which in recent years has spurred community groups and gardeners to lobby the city to set aside more space for community gardens.

We need more community gardens," says Marcia Fein, who obtained her Willowgate plot in 1993 after five years on the waiting list. "It's the most under-resourced city recreation program there is."

Responding to the high demand, city officials have recently been exploring the possibility of establishing a third community garden in Mountain View, says city senior administrative analyst Lori Topley.

One possibility is retaining the temporary garden on Escuela Avenue even after the original garden is re-established at the senior center. Another is starting up a new city-owned garden near Whisman Road.

But in general, Topley says, such plans are still "very, very preliminary."
'Like a church'

There are plenty of reasons why city dwellers long for a space in a community garden. For some, the sense of agricultural flair in the midst of an urban setting makes for an inviting escape from the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley.

When Fein initially signed up for her plot it was because her too-shady backyard made it almost impossible to grow vegetables. But she soon discovered that Willowgate also allowed her to stay in touch with nature. Fein says she loves watching the various critters living in the garden, and she often brings along an insect book to identify unfamiliar ones.

"It's like a church," she says, referring to the garden's peaceful atmosphere.

To senior center community gardener Marcelle Schoen, working on her small piece of land not only has a relaxing effect. She also takes pride in growing her own produce and sharing it with friends and family.

"I like to eat the food and I like to know what I'm eating," she says.

Both community gardens are tended to without chemical pesticides and herbicides, which Fein says makes for a big difference in quality and flavor. Over the years, the passionate organic gardener says she has learned to maximize her plot to the point that she can easily feed a family of four.

"You can grow everything," she says, adding that she harvests the food "at its absolute peak of freshness and flavor." Fein regularly experiments with new seeds and plants -- currently it's several exotic varieties of tomatoes as well as a small cotton plant.

Apart from the practicality of homegrown produce, many also appreciate the social and cultural aspects of a community garden.

Especially for seniors, having a small plot that requires regular watering and weeding is a great way to remain active after retirement, says Eva Koltai, who has been a gardener at the senior center lot for more than 10 years.

"The main thing is to come out and exercise and socialize," she says, adding that some of the gardeners are in their early 80s. "It lifts your spirits up to have some purpose to get out and at least water the plants," she says.
@newhead:Where cultures mingle

And true to Mountain View's diverse population, the city's community gardens have proven to be places where people from all cultural backgrounds come together.

"One thing I really like about it," says Fein, "it's a little U.N. snapshot of Mountain View."

In her 12 years at Willowgate, Fein has met people from Mexico, Sicily, Indonesia and Yugoslavia. She says she thinks of the garden as a place more diverse than any other part of Mountain View.

Cultural diversity is just as rich at the senior center garden, Koltai says, where U.S.-born seniors work side by side with gardeners from various Asian and Eastern European countries.

Koltai, who many years ago immigrated to the United States from Hungary, says gardeners often reflect their cultural identity in the crops they grow.

But beyond cultural background, the "design" of a plot also very much reflects the individuality of its owner, Fein says. Meticulously laid out vegetable beds contrast tellingly with colorful flower plots and carefully landscaped mini-gardens.

Despite their diversity in personality, background and age, community gardeners are united in their common hobby, which Rippere says leads many of them to bond.

"We share crops when we have too many or are particularly excited about a new discovery we've grown," he says.

The gardeners also exchange tips and take care of each other's plots when someone is on vacation, Rippere says, while tools, such as rakes, shovels, hoses and weed-whackers, are routinely shared.

Of course, it's not all roses; as in any "community" setting, renters in both gardens have to deal with occasional annoyances such as missing or misplaced tools, heavily neglected plots or a crop that's been snatched away from someone's garden.

"But the problems don't outweigh the pleasures," says Fein, hoping that in the future more Mountain View residents will have the opportunity to share the great experience she's enjoyed for years.

"It's a lot of fun," she concludes. "It's a family affair where gardeners get to know each other."
For more information on Mountain View's community gardens or to sign up for a plot, call Rae Blasquez at (650) 903-6607, or visit

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