By Chris Gutierrez
Two blocks from the Pacific Ocean sweeping into the Santa Monica Bay, glistens another realm of biodiversity. For 40 years the Santa Monica Community Gardens on Main Street have blossomed, where food, flora and fauna can grow and worms wriggle in soil teeming with microbial life. There, sunrise and birdsong awaken senses. Snail-trails zig-zag paths. Orange and black Monarch wings flutter. Scents of honeysuckle, jasmine, cilantro waft in the air. Spider webs stick to the touch. African basil, collards, artichokes, California poppies, passion fruit, corn, sweet peas and milkweed, and so much more flourish. Several blocks inland at Park Avenue and Euclid the vitality in additional community gardens abounds.
Welcome to the Santa Monica Community Gardens! Welcome to vibrant color and flavors!
Welcome to being refreshed!
Since February 24, 1976, when vacant City property became available for local residents, largely tenants, to grow their own vegetables, herbs, flowers, and plants, we at the Santa Monica Community Gardens have embraced all kinds of visitors from the teeniest, barely visible life forms to world travelers stepping into a verdant urban retreat, a resource for natural and human communities. Any time the gates are unlocked or standing wide open, any time that we can, we community gardeners are eager to share what we know and grow.
Whose idea was it to create the community gardens 40 years ago? Donald Arnett, City Recreation and Parks Director, first envisioned the community gardens. Councilwoman Christine Reed advanced the idea. Both were civic leaders ready to respond to residents’ requests. Arnett’s and Reed’s leadership and imagination favored a far-reaching sense of a community being self-sufficient. What could be more fitting than being grounded in working with soil and seed?
In 1976 the unanimous city council vote, the first of its kind in the region, established 60 plots on Main Street. (Park Avenue had also been considered, but neighbors’ there had opposed the notion.) That week the Evening Outlook’s Bay Area section with a bold headline, three times larger than any other, heralded the news: “SM Council OKs Garden on OP Land.” A Main Street plot could be cultivated for a $15 annual fee, which covered the costs of preparing the soil and irrigation infrastructure. The gardeners would supply labor, knowledge, tools and plantings.
The United States was celebrating its bicentennial year, six years following the inaugural Earth Day. The City’s decision reflected a kind of revolutionary environmental spirit, foreshadowing Santa Monica’s leadership in sustainability. What could be more sustainable than growing local food? Actually, such cultivation emerges from what is, as the economist Jeremy Rifkin argues, the Earth’s first economy, photosynthesis-the process of transforming the sun’s energy into the caloric value of plant foods for species, certainly, our own.
Each year scores of us, all Santa Monica residents, young and young-at heart, cultivate the life in the soil and in ourselves. An annual license agreement with the City and a $100 fee authorizes us to be actively planting and caring for our gardens, enjoying our personal harvests and sharing (never selling) what we grow.
The community gardens’ history reflects passion. Two years following the gardens commencement, by March 28, 1978, citing an “enthusiastic” response, the City Council agreed that the community gardens, originally begun as a pilot program, would continue indefinitely. In 1979 residents formally requested additional gardens.
The 1997 Recreation and Parks Master Plan complied with increasing demand. Park Avenue plots were extended 30spots on the north and south of a tree lined open space. Additionally, Euclid Park was designed with a community garden adding ten spaces. Some of the Main Street’s largest plots were divided into two. Altogether, today, Santa Monica’s three organic and GMO-free community garden sites offer 121 plots, including several accessible spaces. Still, a wait list of hundreds of prospective gardeners exists.
Gardeners and City staff collaborate to address the gardens’ needs. Keeping them in good shape is a basic commitment we gardeners make. In the 1990s the Gardens Advisory Committee was established with site representatives, and the rules and regulations were formalized. In 2009 the committee realized how significantly the community gardens help meet the City’s sustainability commitments and chose a liaison for the Task Force on the Environment. When the Office of Sustainability and the Environment updated the City’s Sustainability Plan in 2014, it included a new goal of annually increasing community gardens and gardeners. The City Council unanimously agreed.
Community gardening means being a good neighbor to fellow gardeners, and, in my mind, to all kinds of fellow creatures of the biosphere, from wildlife to human life. Four decades after Arnett and Reed along with residents created the Santa Monica Community Gardens, they are deeply rooted and always welcoming. Come visit. Slow down. Breathe anew.