MAIN STREET — For several hours every week, life for Helene Zuckerman is confined to a 400-square-foot retreat.
It is in the small nook of the Santa Monica Community Gardens on Main Street where Zuckerman cultivates her own produce section, covering nearly every inch with fruits and vegetables, from the blackberries sprawled along the fence to the Swiss chard on the ground.
“Every year I grow different things and learn more,” Zuckerman said. “Everything is organic and tastes delicious.”
She has maintained the garden for less than three years but had to wait nearly three times as long to call it her own.
The popularity of the community gardens program — which has a waiting list 175 residents long — has led to a dearth that can’t match the growing demand, forcing city officials to get creative when looking at ways to expand opportunities for Santa Monicans with the green thumb itch.
One option City Hall has been exploring for several months is to create a registry that would match prospective growers with private property owners who have the land but not the time to garden.
“We would see our role as more of a registry to connect people but have them make their own arrangements,” Kathy LePrevost, the community programs manager for City Hall, said. “We’re just trying to be the facilitator.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown, who sent a similar proposal to city staff last week, called the concept “21st century urban sharecropping.”
“Lots of Santa Monicans would love to have fresh produce for their families,” he said. “Many have yards or lawns that would make perfect gardens, but can’t commit the time to grow food crops.
“At the same time, we know we have willing gardeners who’ve been waiting for city community garden plots to open up.”
McKeown said he is trying to get a hold of 100 families who are currently on the waiting list.
“I want to make sure there is real interest in this from gardeners,” he said.
City Hall currently operates three community gardens spread throughout Santa Monica, which have about 117 plots amongst the trio — Main Street, Park Drive and the newest addition, Euclid Park.
Applicants must be a Santa Monica resident and pay $60 annually for their plot of land. Residents remain on the waiting list for about five years on average, LePrevost said.
Residents in the Pico Neighborhood have lobbied city officials to open a community garden in their area, pointing out a vacant lot at the corner of 20th Street and Delaware Avenue as an option. Others have suggested building rooftop gardens.
“I think there is a larger movement that people are plugging into for the need for urban farming and accessibility to local produce and having the connection between where your food comes from and the meal on your table,” said Linda Piera-Avila, a 2008 City Council candidate and Pico Neighborhood Association board member. “There is more appreciation now than in the past concerning pesticide and resource usage and living more sustainably.”
Piera-Avila also suggested that City Hall should consider building a public garden over the I-10 Freeway between 14th and 17th streets if it decides to deck it.
“It’s amazing how abundant a community garden can be in a small amount of space,” she said. “You have excess tomatoes and zucchinis to show all your neighbors and that builds community too, to share excess harvest.”
Those who already have a plot seemed intrigued by the idea of pairing property owners with gardeners, but saw some potential problems in the arrangements.
Tom Davidson, a Downtown resident who has managed a 100-square-foot parcel at Park Drive since June of last year, pointed out that some vegetables, such as asparagus, could take two to three years to grow.
For the arrangement to be successful, the gardener would need at least a two-to-three-year commitment from the property owner, he said.
There is also the issue of privacy and whether the gardener would be allowed to show up whenever they please, Davidson added.
“But from a community point-of-view, it might be helpful,” he said.
Davidson spends several hours a week working on his small garden where he brings his two sons — ages 3 and 5 — to learn about horticulture.
While the produce is tastier than what is purchased at a market, Davidson said there is a misperception that growing is a cheaper alternative, pointing out that he has invested about $1,000 into his garden while only consuming about $200 worth. Much of the money was spent on a new fence, pots, soil and seeds.
“I do it because I love gardening and for the educational experience,” he said.
Zuckerman decided to apply for a community garden after learning about it through a friend. She remained on the waiting list for about eight years and had forgotten until she received a phone call from City Hall about an opening.
Several months after she began gardening, Zuckerman received a letter from the IRS notifying that she would be audited. Stressed out, Zuckerman drove to the garden where she spent several hours working.
When she returned home, Zuckerman picked up the letter again and was surprised that she had gone two hours without thinking about the audit.
“When I’m here, this is all I think about,” Zuckerman said. “Nothing else exists really.”