Ocean View Growing Grounds (OVGG), a formerly vacant lot, has been transformed into a food forest where both nature and community thrive. This center of innovation and collaboration is celebrating a decade and taking its next steps to evolve into a powerful hub building community advocacy and leadership development. Sustained people power is a key element to a thriving urban farm. Located adjacent to Barrio Logan, OVGG is considered a brownfield, an area containing hazardous traces of pollutants and heavy metals. This typically poses a complex challenge for healthy growing practices, but with a network of community partners, OVGG is growing stronger than ever.
The Global Action Research Center (Global ARC) is a nonprofit working to address poverty through grassroots action in research and policy. The organization funds OVGG’s land lease and employees, including site manager Thi Vo. The goal is to continue developing the program into a center that teaches community members tactics that build resilience to climate change and to have a voice in environmental policies.
Vo shares that a strategic part of Global ARC’s plan is to train neighborhood teen leaders. These Youth Environmental Justice Advocates learn about climate solutions, develop leadership and public speaking opportunities, and create youth-centered advocacy campaigns. Past projects include neighborhood beautification, addressing city council meetings, and teaching innovative gardening techniques to community members.
Also instrumental is OVGG’s partnership with professor Keith Pezzoli and UC San Diego’s Urban Studies and Planning Program. In Pezzoli’s innovative urban studies projects, students mapped out the city’s vacant lots in order to evaluate their suitability as community gardens or food forests.
The community garden’s strong ties to UCSD helps provide a team of interns and fellows whose technology, labor, and research allow for plant and soil testing, mapping, and planning. Vo explains the importance of the technology on loan from UCSD, such as a portable soil analyzer that detects traces of heavy metals in the soil and indicates safe areas where edible plants can grow.
“It helps us uncover useful data. For instance, we learned that in avocado trees, metal travels only to the leaves, not the avocados, making them safe to eat,” says Vo.
Another substantial component of OVGG is its network of community members who grow organic produce at home. Vo shares, “It’s important to meet community members where they are. Most are already growing in their backyards or in containers. We build on their traditional knowledge.”
Local master gardeners host workshops sharing relevant container gardening tips and expertise.
Heirloom seeds, mostly locally adapted, are carefully sourced or harvested to continue growing a seed library that will give back to the community for years to come. OVGG also hosts quarterly Healthy Family Nights that celebrate lively discussions around culturally relevant healthy food and dishes made with foods grown onsite. The grower’s network also distributes surplus organic food to trusted organizations such as local churches and We All We Got SD.
Volunteers are essential to maintain the hub. “We do not rent out beds. We are a learning center and have harvests every Saturday for volunteers to take home,” Vo says. “Since weeds are a constant challenge, our volunteers do a lot of weeding for us.” To keep up with this time-consuming activity, Vo promotes efficiency and sustained growth through two cost-effective measures: soil solarization and foliar feeding.
Soil solarization is an easy, nonchemical “technology” that Vo touts as a time and soil saver. “A weedy area is deeply watered, then covered in black plastic for several months. OVGG adds a top layer of mulch for aesthetics. The heat created under the plastic digests the plant matter, much like the process of composting. When the plastic is removed, rich, moist soil emerges that is ready for planting,” she says.
Vo explains the benefits of foliar feeding: “By applying fertilizer directly to the leaves, they take on 80% of the nutrients. Much less water and time is needed than feeding the roots, and [plant] production has boomed.”
These practices leave Vo’s staff with more time to attend to vital tasks such as soil testing, mapping, and grant writing.
A new grant will fund the building and implementation of an outdoor demonstration and teaching kitchen. The kitchen will be used for community-centered workshops and events focused on cooking with homegrown produce and healthy meal prep with limited time and money.
Additionally, this summer, UCSD’s Keith Pezzoli was awarded a grant for Rooted Pedagogy, a project that will boost college students’ engagement in community fieldwork and data collection. He reports, “The urban studies major tends to attract a disproportionately higher number of students of color and first-generation college students. Data shows that courses enriched with experiential learning opportunities seem to provide meaningful learning that translates into student success and civic engagement. Field research and solutions-oriented learning likely translates into fewer dropped courses and student failures, and thus shortened time to achieving a degree.”
This article originally published in issue 71.