As a horse and rider canter by on a dusty path beside the Tijuana River Valley (TRV) Regional Community Garden, customers arrive at a farmstand beneath a shade structure under a massive eucalyptus tree, whose fragrant leaves disperse in a sudden breeze. Erik Rodriguez, in his brown hat with a feather and flower in the band, looks up, smiles broadly, and announces happily to his shoppers, “Confetti!” Then, he begins his Saturday morning commerce here at the corner of Hollister Street and Sunset Avenue in Imperial Beach. 

Erik Rodriguez helps a customer choose flowers at Pixca Farm stand at Tijuana River Valley Community Garden.

A sign above him, flapping gently, reads Pixca, which is harvest in Spanish and pronounced peesh-ca. Rodriguez helped launch Pixca Farm, a social justice inspired farmers co-op within the community garden. It’s designed for local people to practice their skills and explore interests in starting their own farming business. Several people have started their own ventures after gaining experience growing in quarter-acre incubator plots within the TRV garden. It’s one of many encouraging stories from dozens of community gardens in San Diego County, operated by a variety of entities, each with its own culture. Interest is growing, so expect to see more.

Demand for locally grown food has increased as consumers become more aware of the source of their food and the benefits of local produce, according to the County of San Diego website. “Accessibility to local food can improve the local economy and lead to healthier food choices for the community.” The city of Escondido and the Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego County are at least two entities considering adding to their community gardening acreage. In some cases, tax breaks may be available for property owners who allow gardens on their land. Check with your city or the county for more information.

Erik Rodriguez helped launch Pixca Farm, a social justice venture, in an incubator plot in Tijuana River Valley Community Garden.

Every Saturday, Rodriguez takes turns with other Pixca farmers regaling shoppers with ways to spice corn before eating it raw or cooked, as well as which mint to use for mojitos. Out-of-state visitors escaping heatwaves, plus campers, bird watchers, and hikers on their way to the nearby County campground or trail have been recent customers. One shopper named Marcia, who comes from Phoenix, AZ each summer, said she often buys produce at the stand. “Everything’s so fresh and I know it’s grown by these people who care about it. I like to walk in the garden—it’s a real experience.” 

As the morning warms up, a variety of people gather here, from wriggly youngsters yet to understand the joys of vegetables to seniors who value the quality. 

Incubator Plots

The TRV Community Garden is the largest in San Diego County, with 210 plots, including the quarter-acre incubators. It has a three-year waiting list. Kind People’s Farm is another start-up there that sells to at least one local restaurant. The TRV and Sweetwater community gardens are managed by the Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego County. Rodriguez is the RCD’s Farm Operations Manager. He goes between the garden, where he has a personal plot too, and an educational property, Wild Willow Farm and Education Center, on Sunset Avenue, where the public can learn how to farm and make compost, as well as raise worms, hens, and goats.

Where are most community gardens located?

Some gardens are on public property, such as “Juniper and Front” on Port of San Diego land at Front and Juniper streets in San Diego. Escondido has gardens on city land and there’s a Fallbrook garden on a public utility’s property. Others are tucked into patches in alleys or alongside freeways. Schools, faith-based organizations, and nonprofit organizations also provide spaces. At least one is part of a housing complex called Avocado Court by CHC Works, which is transitional housing in Escondido for at least one formerly homeless disabled veterans. Residents are invited to garden there with the vets. Some gardens are on private land. Other operations, such as Community Roots Farm in Oceanside, invites local residents to volunteer and learn to grow there, and they provide boxes of produce, flowers, and herbs to residents via subscription. Even Donovan Correctional Center in Otay Mesa announced plans for developing a community garden for families visiting inmates.

The “little man” sign at Escondido Community Garden can be seen by motorists as they near Highway 78.

Choosing a location

If you’re ready to get your hands in the soil, look for a garden and group that fits your personality, lifestyle, experience level, ability, the amount of time you can spend, and your budget. You can check this list by SanDiegoCommunityGardenNetwork. It’s best to reach out to the listed contacts directly because some information has changed.

Most gardens throughout the county are for local residents, so you may need to choose one in your neighborhood, even if it doesn’t offer what others do. If you’re starting from scratch, maybe connect with one that offers free classes. 

Some people like to contribute to their local community through gardening. San Carlos Community Garden members help the adjacent Sierra School of San Diego, by providing compost for special needs students to grow food for their culinary program. 

Maybe a diverse population is what you’re seeking, especially if you’re an immigrant. Rodriguez said many Vietnamese and Filipino community members grow at the TRV garden because they miss flavors from their homeland. Beth Mercurio, founder and manager of Escondido’s community garden, agrees. “We have 12 languages spoken here and we have volunteer translators. Chinese gardeners, for example, like to grow huge squash here and they create dishes with them for our potlucks.” A new gazebo is under construction for elderly Chinese growers who walk to the garden every day. The lush, vertical gardens they grow exude cool moisture and shade as people walk through the garden on a hot morning. Mercurio says it’s interesting to see how and what people from other countries and cultures grow, like how Persian gardeners tend to divide their plots into segments using concrete blocks, for example. 

In Escondido, Asian community gardeners enjoy growing giant produce that gets cooked into meals for potlucks.

Since some community gardens eventually stop operating, you might consider how long each garden has been established. Mercurio founded the Escondido garden nearly 30 years ago. She’s quick to credit the city for their help over the years, like providing free compost classes. She also said a big part of their success has been having a stable board, with many members who have been involved in the project with her from the beginning. The garden also makes good use of local volunteers, such as Eagle Scouts, high school students needing community service hours, and master gardener Barbara, who enjoys her time there so much that she says it’s become “addictive.”

Managing the basics of garden fees, applications, and expenses

Garden bed rates vary according to size and the scale of the managing entity’s support, budget, supplies, etc. You might find plots for no charge, while others are subject to fees, and some offer payment plans. If you need tools, look for groups that share shovels, hoses, and maybe a storage shed or try shopping second-hand to save a few dollars. 

You’ll also want to inquire about how water costs are handled. The Fallbrook garden is fortunate to have free water because they lease land owned by the Fallbrook Public Utility District, according to garden manager Ani Vartanians, but that’s not always the case. 

Many garden managers require an application and some agreements might stipulate that the garden is organic. In this case, if you don’t think you’ll be able to manage organic gardening, reconsider. Also, find out how they prefer gardeners to deter or eradicate pests. Many growers have become “zen” about letting animals have a share while harvesting for themselves but others use a variety of methods to get rid of squirrels, rabbits, rodents, gophers, and birds. 

Availability may determine which plot you will get. You may find that your space has already been cleared but many have tall weeds so be sure to ask about this before you sign up if you aren’t able to clear the vegetation. If you need a space that is designed for people with disabilities, let them know. You might also ask if any security is offered since our region’s hot summers mean gardeners usually tend their plots early in the morning or early evenings. 

Community gardens offer space for creative expression.

A Quiet Getaway

No matter how tiny a plot is, it can be a quiet, somewhat private reprieve from the stress and noise of metropolitan life. Some people construct small decks, trellises, planter boxes, arches, and fences to make their spaces feel like small backyards. Growing vines or trees can offer shade and additional privacy. A few gardeners bring comfy chairs, bird feeders, and water features, and they even install art. One community gardener at Sweetwater says she doesn’t have a big garden at home, so she enjoys creating her own larger plot there. One small garden in a San Diego alleyway even has a wooden platform with workout equipment and a play area for children for added entertainment. 

Tips for starting a community garden

  • See which neighbors are interested and if (and how) they’d support it. Create a group.
  • Tour other gardens for ideas and support.
  • Check with your local city or the county about zoning to see if there are any restrictions or any needed permits.
  • Talk to the land owner where you want to start your garden. The property will likely need to be easily accessible, in a safe location, level for universal access, with available parking. 
  • See if there are any possible tax benefits, as an incentive.
  • Create a design. Will you use raised beds or concrete blocks to designate areas? Remember to provide space for vehicle access down walkways within the garden, so there’s room to drop off compost or haul away vegetation. Factor in issues like crop theft and safety by considering lighting, signs, high fences, gate locks, codes, and security. 
  • Make a written plan. Decide who will take responsibility for things like managing the garden, being a point of contact, interacting with agencies and the public, and who will help build garden plots.
  • Decide if the garden should be organic or not.
  • Make plans to donate excess produce to food banks or directly to community members in need.
  • Connect with organizations for classes and volunteers. 
  • See if local groups and businesses might sponsor fencing, lighting, water, a portable potty, a shade structure, a tool shed, tools, compost bins, compost, and mulch for walkways between beds, training, plants, etc. Donations and contributions can be made in exchange for sponsorship acknowledgments on signage in the garden.
  • Consider the benefits of becoming a nonprofit, which may aid in gaining grants and donations.
  • Search online for available funds and consider crowdfunding.
  • Start smaller rather than larger to avoid extra maintenance.

Additional resources

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