A dry and barren plot downtown has been transformed into a lush and inviting community space. Blink and you'll miss it, unless you're walking.
The block of 405 N. Main St., tucked in between E. Pecan Street, W. SAlinas Street and N. Flores Street, is flourishing, part of the downtown gardening scene that is growing quickly – no pun intended.
Named Little Patch Garden for its unique polygon shape formed by four surrounding streets, the once-neglected little patch of land is often buzzing with activity now. Just last weekend patrons with shovels and wheelbarrows moved in more than a dozen 100-pound stones to finish the new limestone seating wall. Those patrons are members of Geekdom, a collaborative workspace, located just beyond the B-Cycle station and the surface parking lot next to the Weston Centre.
Geekdom membership, however, is not required to get your hands dirty at Little Patch. Volunteers like myself have brought this little patch of green space to life. Please excuse me if I make us out to be heros of the urban landscape – we're just common folk who want to help build a healthy and happy community.
Keeping with that spirit, all six volunteers have agreed to donate the produce we grow and harvest to local residents. Any surplus will be donated to the San Antonio Food Bank.
With this in mind, you can probably guess what our response is to one of the most common questions we're asked by friends and passersby. “What if the homeless and strangers take and eat your vegetables?” they ask, usually with one eyebrow skeptically raised.
Our answer: "So?"
This is a community project and we encourage anyone to get involved, even if it means – gasp! – eating a tomato. Have you ever had a fresh tomato? The good ones have a sharp acidic taste and explode with flavor when you bite into them. I invite you to come down and try one.
The community response has been overwhelmingly positive. With a downtown mostly paved with concrete and filled with metal structures, the garden is a soft, inviting counterpoint. Local residents often stop by and pause from daily urban life – if just for a moment. Watching our neighbors appreciate the garden gives me pride, and encourages us to spend more time on maintenance and improvements. I spend 6-8 hours a week working in the garden. Ethan Jones, Joey Pawlik, Katie Lee, William Gaskins and Tom Hoffman do, too.
“This lot looked like a dump before, the city used to park cars on it and use it for storage and weeds where three feet high," downtown resident Tom Hughes said as he touched a tomato leaf while passing by last week. "What you guys did here is amazing.”
The idea of a geek garden was born last June by Geekdom members Jones, Lee and Dustin Larimer. Their enthusiasm led Graham Weston, owner of the Weston Centre and Co-founder of Rackspace, to give us permission to transform the vacant plot.
In October, Pawlik joined the cause. He's an urban design student at nearby San Antonio College who will soon return to Texas A&M in College Station to complete his degree. He's helped with the manual labor and by guiding our group's plans for future space-friendly designs.
“I wanted to help make a unique and well crafted space for the downtown community. I learned everyone has various skills, we must educate others with our own skills," Pawlick said.
Hoffman, Gaskins and I joined the group in January. Professionally designed landscaping plans were donated by TBG Architect Group. Zac Harris, also of Geekdom, helped secure this deal. Donations from local companies will help determine the ultimate design and layout of the garden. If you would like to donate, please got to www.littlepatchgarden.com.
After the groundbreaking in October, the main mulch paths were created in the shape of an "X" over existing walkways.
Jones headed up the paths project. “We noticed the natural walking paths of people across the lot, so we used the same flow in our design,” Jones said. After the walking paths and a few compost bins were installed in November, the work slowed down fo the winter, although two benches were added in December.
When I joined, I had designs ready for raised beds. I like to build stuff. I love the look of natural wood mixed with industrial design. Not a fan of the ultra modern minimalistic designs, I like natural shapes and colors to give life to a project – so a boring cement rectangle is not my bag. A vine made from cut metal attached to a handcrafted wood lattice is my style. I imagine the living vines will grow on the metal vines, weaving through the lattice during the spring season – then during winter, the vines retract, die and reveal the metal vines giving the piece a petrified look. Ya dig?
In addition to Geekdom's main sponsorship, Little Patch is now partially sponsored by the Green Spaces Alliance of San Antonio, a local nonprofit group that helps fund more than 30 community gardens.
“I see you guys working out here, and even though I’m often too busy to help, it's really refreshing to see progress being made," said Geekdom member Cole Wallok.
This new patch of green on the downtown scene has been earning respect and patronage from shops and business owners.
“Hey man, I would like to sponsor a raised bed," said Banks owner of the Bad Habbits Tattoo shop, directly across West Salinas Street from the garden. "Those look really tight.”
Later that day, Banks stopped by with a $100 donation.
“I want a nice space for the neighborhood, with space for people to grow food. I'm not opposed to flowers and non-edibles, I just think when you pair the access to fresh veggies downtown and the rate of obesity in SA, growing food is a good first step," said Katie Lee, a core volunteer for garden. "And then I'd like Little Patch to inspire people to take over other vacant lots downtown. Maybe even some of the ugly paved ones, by building only raised beds and cutting through pavement for a couple of trees. Downtown should be more than the River Walk.”
Community or urban/backyard gardening is not a passing fad. Young people and older generations aren't gardening because it's easy and hip. Motivations vary, of course, but I think most people just like being a part of something that helps their community. Gardening is as much therapeutic as it is tangibly beneficial to gardeners and passersby. It changes the landscape in a physical and psychological way. If you see plants growing, people helping, and positive activity going on in an area, it reduces your stress levels.
Another driving force for volunteers is public health. Our food system is full of synthetic, processed foods. More and more people have reached an awareness tipping-point about the benefits of eating produce that's closer to its natural state. And then there is our growing obesity problem. We are "fat, sick and nearly dead," borrowing from the namesake of an award winning documentary about dieting and eating habits. The Center for Disease Control's 2012 Diabetes Report Card reveals 11% of adult Americans suffer from diabetes, 95% of them have Type II diabetes - a fully preventable disease that can be treated with dietary changes, including eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
My inspiration for helping with Little Patch Garden has been building positive relationships with people. I want to give them pride and help them become healthy from the inside out. So far, its working.
It's also just plain, old fun to garden in the heart of downtown. On an island surrounded by office towers and circled by impatient traffic, it feels liberating and defiant to grow tomatoes. Drivers slow down and stare with longing eyes. They'd much rather be in the garden than in their car.
Ron Finley, a garden gangster from Los Angeles, encourages people in his community to grow guerilla gardens on sidewalks and public spaces. "Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries,” Finley said during a TED talk in March. [Warning: below video contains strong language.]
Not all space is used in planting vegetables. Some areas will become flexible design exhibits for donated flowers and plants. Some plans include developing an ornamental butterfly garden. This aesthetic element will help attract interest in garden.
The Patches and Pieces Within the Little Patch Garden
Little Patch occupies about 5,000 square feet. Near the center of garden are three compost bins (see previous photo). Two are made from found discarded pallets, one from cedar fence boards. Residents and local restaurants ensure a steady flow of food scraps are added to the pile weekly. Compost bins need moisture to work efficiently, so we keep the pile damp.
At the heart of the garden, next to the compost bins, is a mulch crossing nicely trimmed with steel edging. These mulch walkways were painstakingly installed by Lee and Jones during the first days of the garden last summer.
Raised vegetable beds made from galvanized roofing metal gleam in the sun and sit on Main Street on the east side of Little Patch. A sharp contrast to the green grass they occupy. The beds are three feet tall and come in assorted lengths ranging from eight to 12 feet. When designing the beds beds, we wanted an industrial look with a natural wood element, so they are trimmed with cherry-stained tops. These tops allow for seating and give a finished look. We have built six raised beds in this style. They provide enough space for 30 tomato plants and a variety of vegetables and herbs. Rosemary, my favorite herb, is currently traveling over the ledge of a bed. Rosemary goes well with fresh baked bread and olive oil or with buttered rosemary rolls. Just sayin'.
The three, shorter beds are made from recycled lumber. Their design is way more straight forward: two wood beams stacked up and bolted together. The beds provide growing space for pineapple, onions, strawberries, squash and an assortment of other herbs and vegetables.
Three juvenile fig trees are grouped in a triangle, on the west side of Little Patch. Four square feet of heavy mulch surrounds the trees in a circle, maintaining moisture and discouraging weed growth. Looking closely at the trees, hidden inside the leaves, small buds of baby figs are forming. This means fig eating time soon!
Ultimately, there are plans and designs for a small recreational area with picnic tables and shade – premium space for a quick lunch or snack during a workweek in the concrete jungle.
So. Are you down with Little Patch yet? Stop by. Eat a tomato.
For volunteer information, to join our mailing list, or donate (we happily accept plants, supplies and equipment from individuals or companies) visit www.littlepatchgarden.com.
Steve likes to laugh and tell stories. His goals in life include helping others, and changing the world in a positive way. One day, he wants to give a Ted talk on sustainability and write a children's book. You can find him on Twitter, About.Me, Pinteres