Two streets from downtown, in between a church, a park and two rows of houses, lies the Emerson Community Garden. With its various wind chimes, birdbaths and tool benches, and an occasional scarecrow and pumpkin thrown in for fall, the gardens function as a sort of backyard for a city whose narrow streets leave much to be desired in terms of growing space.
The San Luis Obispo Community Gardens, which operate under the city’s parks and recreation department, provide planting plots for local residents who don’t have enough space at home to grow their flowers or produce. Located on the corner of Nipomo and Pismo streets, on Laurel Lane and North Broad Street, the gardens are a convenient option for downtown residents, as well as those who have to come from farther away.
The gardens began as an Eagle Scout project over a decade ago and were designed to provide available growing space for the community. The annual $24 rent covers all the water required throughout the growing season. While gardeners are expected to maintain their plots, there are no rules as to what can or cannot be grown. “As long as it doesn’t cast shade on someone else’s garden.they have the ability grow anything they’d like,” said Amy Voorhies, of the San Luis Obispo Parks and Recreation Department.
While the plots average 10-by-10 feet in size, each space is unique in terms of shape and harvest. Some are rectangular slices of earth featuring neat rows of vegetables, while others are horseshoe-shaped areas overflowing with seasonal wildflowers.
The demographics of the approximately 70 gardeners who have plots at the three locations vary. “I have college students who have plots. I have families, I have seniors,” added Voorhies.
For many, the gardens serve as a main source of produce. Christine Wallace, who works for the parks and recreation department and oversees the operations at the gardens, said that the majority of the gardeners she sees use their plots to grow food. “In my opinion, it’s primarily vegetables to supplement their table.”
Speaking of the garden’s benefit to those with smaller incomes, Wallace added, “Some folks that come are low income or fixed income. They’re eating what they grow.”
San Luis Obispo resident Janet Santacqua has had a plot in the Community Gardens for three years. She and her husband who live nearby don’t have room at their residence to grow produce.
Santacqua’s extensive plot contains mostly vegetables, although she also has a few flowers. “I’m growing kale now, I have broccoli planted and cabbage and strawberries,” she said, pointing to her plot at the Emerson Garden.
For Santacqua, the sense of community among the gardeners is another valuable aspect of using the gardens. While acknowledging that some gardeners are “more involved than others,” she said that, over time, she and her husband have gotten to know many of the people who grow in the neighboring plots. “We have potlucks in the summertime,” she said. “You learn about other people.”
The locations are frequented by many members of the community, even non-gardeners. Cayucos resident Gail Martin says she visits the Emerson Garden when she comes to San Luis Obispo to do errands. “I just meditate and look at all the beautiful things,” she said. “I like all of it, the arches, sitting here with the water; the little birds.”
The gardens have become impacted as more people become aware of them, causing many would-be gardeners to put their plans on hold. “We have ridiculously long waiting lists,” Wallace said, citing the garden’s popularity among downtown residents, the majority of whom have small yards. Voorhies added that the average waiting time is about a year.
Although there are no specific plans to expand at this time, Wallace says that the parks and recreations department is always looking for new sites. “We’re in the process of identifying and investigating some additional locations,” she said.