Community Garden Harvests Lots More than Food by Rick Mercurio & Beth Mercurio

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Mr. Chen stands proudly in front of his plot at the Escondido Community Garden, where a diverse mix of gardeners grow vegetables and flowers, contributing to a spirit of mutual enrichment.

 

Many people live in apartments, condos or senior homes without a yard, and the garden provides a welcome opportunity for these folks to get back to the land.

 

Crouched over his garden plot, 80-year-old Mr. Chen, originally from China, gingerly plunges his trowel into the rich soil as he plants his favorite squash. Chen is part of the remarkably diverse Escondido Community Garden, where seven languages are spoken among a myriad of nationalities, meshing young, old, and even the disabled, all who share a love of gardening.

Another gardener, Jacqueline, has had her plot over 17 years. “It’s all about everyone sharing and helping each other,” she said. “Besides my fresh vegetables, I love the garden for many reasons: it’s good for the heart, good for the soul, good clean dirt, and good clean work. The garden is my passion!”

Founded in 1994, the Escondido Community Garden is among the oldest in the county. It includes 115 plots, which are rented for a nominal fee, to anyone who wants to grow their own vegetables, herbs or flowers. Many people live in apartments, condos or senior homes without a yard, and the garden provides a welcome opportunity for these folks to get back to the land.

Gardeners join for a variety of reasons: physical exercise, to harvest fresh food which they eat on the same day, and even to socialize, as they get to know others in the community. On any given day, one may hear conversations in English, Spanish, Korean, Tagalog, Farsi, Russian or Mandarin. Many grow plants that are native to their home country, and they bring their own unique gardening techniques as well. Many of the Chinese plots, for example, boast a species of Chinese summer squash that grows to 20 inches long and hangs down from a handmade arbor made of branches from nearby Reidy Creek.

In addition, numerous organizations have plots at the garden, allowing the disabled and individuals with special needs to enjoy its many benefits. These groups include United Cerebral Palsy, the Salvation Army, Easter Seals, Community Interface, ARC and Supported and Independent Living Services (SAILS). The people in these groups benefit from the sunshine, fresh air, and the activities they participate in while at the garden, including spreading mulch, weeding or emptying bins. It is a symbiotic relationship, as both the participants and the garden “win.”

John Sybesma, 43, was reading his book in a chair by his plot. Sybesma said he loves the silence. He also knows some of the people in the ADA groups from his previous work, and he invites them over to his plot. “It was great to discover them out here and see how they have grown,” he said. “I take tons of pictures of people and their gardens and I love the interaction.”

Gardening for All Ages

Youngsters also get involved. Eagle Scout projects have added many features to the garden including pergolas, raised beds for wheelchair plots, a composting area, a stone water fountain and even a butterfly garden. School field trips bring youngsters to the “sensory garden,” where students may see, touch and smell fragrant herbs and flowers. They also get to tour the garden, learn the history of certain plants, read literature that has to do with gardening, help with plantings, and take home a container with a seed they have planted.

Along with their plot of land, gardeners also get other benefits. Master Gardeners, certified by UCSD, share their expertise with new gardeners. Tools and wheelbarrows are available from the decorated red barn shed. Water and mulch are provided. The fall harvest festival allows gardeners a chance to share their bounty at a potluck where they proudly bring special dishes from their home country.

The City of Escondido provides the land for the garden, located just south of the Escondido Police and Fire Station on Centre City Parkway near the 78 freeway. The City has been very supportive, and they also sponsor a senior garden adjacent to the Community Garden. In order to keep the garden tidy, four work parties are held throughout the year, with gardeners working not on their own plot but on common areas that need weeding or beautifying.

One of the long-time Master Gardeners reflected that the best thing about the garden is that it brings different ethnic groups together, gardening side by side. “The mission of a Master Gardener is to help the community get involved in gardening, and this one does a great job of that,” she said.

 

Rick Mercurio is Alianza North County’s Lead Reporter.

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