SLUGging It Out

Under the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, community gardeners get down and dirty

Like blades of grass in the cracks of sidewalks, they pop up in implausible places: on a triangle between busy streets; on a sliver of land separating apartment buildings; on a lot next to a highway. But San Francisco's 40-odd community gardens, beyond representing the old-fashioned ideal that people who have no back yard can still exercise their green thumbs, occasionally sprout trouble along with tomatoes.

A recent case in point: the garden on Clipper Street, a patchwork of plots terraced out of a steep hill near Diamond Heights. Neighbors who toil there on weekends and in the hazy sunrise hours during the week grow an assortment of staple vegetables and gaudy flowers. Over the years, a number of the gardeners have outgrown their single plots, encroaching on empty and unused spaces that might have gone to the next person on the waiting list. Though more than 1,000 urban growers tend their plots throughout the city, hundreds more want plots of their own. (In popular gardens, waiting lists grow disproportionately to available space: Fort Mason has 150 people on hold; Clipper has dozens in line.)

For a time, no one said or did anything about the land grab. (Indeed, none of the gardeners on Clipper Street wanted to discuss the issue on the record, preferring to work the matter out in private.) Because the garden is on city property, however, it falls under the jurisdiction of the nonprofit San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), which since 1987 has been under contract with the city's Recreation and Park Department to administer the hodgepodge of community gardens, ranging from the one-third-acre Potrero del Sol (near Army and Potrero) to Page Street Garden, a much smaller lot near Webster Street across from city housing.

According to Executive Director Mohammed Nuru, one of SLUG's jobs is to keep the gardens in sync with public land-use standards. Along those lines, SLUG developed a manual (in conjunction with the Recreation and Park Department) that spells out a few ground rules (one plot per person, for instance, or how the coordinator elected by the gardeners must establish a waiting list).

Still, those who have transformed fallow earth into fertile soil at Clipper Street and in other community gardens are naturally proprietary about what becomes of the territory they have reclaimed — if not indignant over meddling by authorities. (“We do things the way we choose as a group,” one of the gardeners from Clipper Street avers, “and shine SLUG on when we can.”) Generally Nuru concurs, acknowledging that disputes within gardens should be settled by members: “SLUG has no intention of running the gardens” in an autocratic fashion, he asserts.

But when word of the plot disparities on Clipper Street eventually reached Nuru, he had to put his foot down. “Those are public gardens” — the city provides water hookups, sheds, and other necessities like fences — “so the gardeners have to adhere to the one-plot-per-person rule.”

“We are living in a democratic society,” he maintains, explaining that the rule is in keeping with SLUG's mission statement that “[a]nyone who wants to should be able to garden.” The implications of greedy gardeners amassing more public land than they are entitled to had the potential for name-calling — if not comparison to land-reform struggles that plague developing nations (but certainly not liberal San Francisco).

To resolve the matter, SLUG arranged a meeting in early November between the Clipper Street gardeners and Brian Lease, SLUG's community gardens coordinator. He reiterated the rules and guidelines and emphasized SLUG's desire to see the gardeners work out a solution on their own. Although all sides played down the squabble (the garden's coordinator even asked that the “painful” dispute not be written about), the meeting often crackled with tension. One of the gardeners felt that SLUG wanted to bring in professional landscapers to dictate a garden's direction — anathema to the free-spirit, no-government-interference ways of the old-time gardeners. Others fretted that SLUG does little to alleviate vegetable theft and homeless people camping out in their gardens.

As Lease explains: “When a status quo exists in a garden and someone from SLUG says they should try to adhere to the rules, it's naturally going to make some people upset. But once we have a meeting, most gardeners feel that the rule is reasonable.”

Ultimately, Nuru characterized the gathering as an example of one of the best things SLUG does — push for compromise. Lease reports that the Clipper Garden's coordinator is now close to agreement on the plot redistribution. “Overall,” he says, that “makes the city feel that these gardens are being run in a logical, fair way.”

Mike Morlin, the Recreation and Park staffer who oversees his department's teamwork with SLUG, gives Lease high marks for his role in resolving the dispute. “Brian, quite the opposite from being a bad guy, was trying to get all the gardeners to understand that they have to share public land.” Morlin observes that many people at Clipper Street had “much more than recreational gardening space,” noting that “it's a privilege, and not a right, to have one plot, and not more than one plot, regardless of how much work you've put into it.” The goal, he maintains, is simple: “We want the most people possible to participate in a pleasurable pastime, a chance to get a little dirt under their fingernails.”

As a dirt-under-your-fingernails type, 30-year-old Brian Lease ranks as a role model. Four days a week, he can be found poking around community gardens, his black work boots and jeans often flecked with mud, a T-shirt hanging loosely over his lanky frame. He generally wears a SLUG baseball cap and often sports a light stubble, giving him a disarming air. At informal work sessions, he happily fields questions about what grows best in what soils (“Anything in the cabbage family does well here”) and offers SLUG amenities like compost and wood chippings for walkways between plots.

On a rainy afternoon earlier this month, Lease met with Ed Rauch, coordinator of the Page Street community garden for the last two years and a gardener there for eight. As a thin mist slicked the scraggly plants in the boxes around them, the two discussed the garden's progress (a volunteer had taken charge of the big composting bins, and the walkways were neat and free of weeds, prompting praise from Lease). The men talked about whether the garden could use some spare tools (Rauch steered Lease away from that idea, noting that theft in the neighborhood was a problem). Some of the planting boxes needed repairs; Lease noted this and promised Rauch that he'd schedule a crew to come and shore up the wood around each plot.

The two discussed the waiting list at the garden (one person) and examined some of the plantings of a Laotian family — ginger, cilantro, and some unidentified green that had invaded a corner. The only recurring problem was a raid of the garden every spring by local teens climbing the fence to get at the plum tree; a large branch lay on its side as a memory of this year's attack. That, plus the frequent incursion of workmen trying to get at the sides of both buildings that loom over the garden were about the only issues. Lease shook Rauch's hand and headed off to another garden.

Lease, who came to San Francisco six years ago from Solvang (a tourist and farming town up the coast from Santa Barbara) and landed his SLUG job a year later, lives in the Mission and has a plot in Potrero del Sol, where a colorful sign asks visitors not to harvest other people's gardens, quoting, tongue-in-cheek, a Mayan proverb: “Those who take from gardens will have stomach troubles.” (Next to plot distribution, stolen produce is the biggest problem for community gardeners.)

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Lease was overseeing a workday at the Potrero garden, turning soil over with a large spade. “I'm particularly proud of these,” he said, pointing out a corner in which thrived half a dozen purple-leaf collard plants almost 6 feet tall. As he worked, Lease talked about some of his favorite projects. “I like to find gardening techniques that are interactive,” he said — like using heirloom seeds (old varieties that have not had their endearing quirks hybridized out) or sprouting shoots from existing plants for the upcoming season.

Later, Lease extols SLUG's other programs as well, pointing out that in addition to community gardens (to which SLUG devotes $50,000 of its annual $1 million budget), the organization sponsors educational programs with the city's schools, a gardening internship for low-income youths, and training-with-pay for public housing residents in landscaping. (With the passage of Proposition D in November, SLUG will be able to continue paying lower-than-prevailing wage for its interns and trainees, an important victory for its economic development efforts.)

But it's the community gardens that Lease is drawn to most, both by job description and the simple fact that he likes working the earth. “Have you seen the Alioto Park garden?” Lease inquires enthusiastically, noting that the two dozen, wheelchair-accessible plots in that manicured space at Capp and 20th streets sprang from a littered, derelict lot. He mentions as well the grounds of the razed Dolores Street Baptist Church (at 15th Street), the site of a runaway girl's grisly strangulation that has been reborn as a community garden with SLUG's guidance. “That filled up with gardeners really fast,” he reports. “Now there's a waiting list.”

Lease remains optimistic that SLUG will continue to expand community gardens, hoping to catch up with the demand. Waiting up to three years to work a few square feet of San Francisco real estate is, he acknowledges, a bit discouraging. Still, he sees the desire for more community gardens as self-fulfilling: “You can't keep people from growing things” — vegetables, or, for that matter, gardens.

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