Planted smack dab in the middle of San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza is a demonstration garden of edible and ornamental plants that has the potential to not only create a radical shift in our food production, but a re-imagining of the garden itself.
“Utopian ideas with real world applications” is the way that artist and designer Amy Franceschini describes her work. While travelling in Ghent in the the east Flanders province of Belgium, Franceschini discovered that this city underwrote private vegetable gardens as being considered critical for local food supply and the health of the environment.
Amy Franceschini believed that our “centralized” agricultural system led to food production far from urban centers. Not only was this wasteful in fuel, but in turn led to higher prices at the supermarket. Growing produce locally in under-utilized backyards and public lands in urban environments meant that organic practices in food production could be insured. Food and fuel independence in uncertain times is also a national security issue. Inspired, Franceschini turned her sights to that most innovative of American cities, San Francisco. Joining with Blair Randall of The Garden for the Environment, San Francisco’s non-profit demonstration garden, a pilot project funded by the city of San francisco named Victory Gardens 2008+ was created. This program calls for:
A more active role for cities in shaping agricultural and food policy. This program offers tools, training, & materials for urban dwellers to participate in a city-wide transformation of underutilized backyards, public lands, school yards, and marginal urban sites— turning them into productive growing spaces. The SF Victory Garden program builds on the successful Victory Garden programs of WWI and WWII but redefines “Victory” in the pressing context of urban sustainability. “Victory” is growing food at home for increased local food security and reducing the food miles associated with the average American meal.
The city hall gardens inhabit the same site used as a victory garden during WWII. In the 1943 image above, the victory gardens here were utilized more as a demonstration garden, but it inspired an enthusiastic populace to plant victory gardens in Golden Gate Park and throughout the region.Victory gardens throughout the US in the 1940’s accounted for 41% of the national food production!
The City Hall gardens today are sponsored by Slow Food Nation, Seeds of Change who specialize in 100% certified organic, openpollinated seeds, and The Studio for Urban Projects which focuses on art, architecture, ecology, and the public realm to generate projects that re-imagine the urban landscape.
I spoke with Blair Randall, Victory Gardens 08+ Program Director, about the structure of the planting areas. He explained that, “The raised beds of rich composted topsoil was necessary as the existing soil under the Civic Center Plaza was sandy and low in fertility like many parts of San Francisco. The circular paths between the beds aided in harvesting.” Drip irrigation, shown with black tubes in the image above, is an integral part of their approach. Water-wise drip irrigation is necessary in an environment which experiences drought and water scarcity. The traditional kind of jet spray irrigation is inefficient and also contributes to powdery mildew in this climate of dry days and foggy nights.
Randall continues, “This also becomes a matter of good public policy for cities with municipal gardens who wish to set a standard of water conservation.”
Bold effects are achieved with contrasting plantings of chartreuse and bronze colored leaves. It is exciting to consider that this new approach to vegetable and edible landscapes has not only environmental benefits, but also innovative aesthetic possibilities.
While strolling through this garden, I could not help but notice a profusion of flowering plants both in their own beds, as well as incorporated within the beds of edible plants. These flowering plants are used to attract pollinators. Featured here are California native plants such as the pink flowering Clarkia amoena, and two species of Baby Blue Eyes, Nemophila menziesii, and Nemophila maculata “baby five spot”
In many home gardens, households struggle between those who have an interest in edible plants, and those for whom it is not a garden without flowers. Traditionally, except for a tidy row of marigolds, flowers were banished from the vegetable patch. Adventurous gardeners may have included the artichoke in the flowering perennial border, but generally an apartheid of species prevailed. In the wholistic approach of Victory Gardens 08+, both flowering and edible plants are integral for a healthy ecosystem.
The focus of Victory Gardens 08+ is of course on edible plants, fruits and vegetables. What is striking to me personally is that when plants such as the squash shown above is elevated as a garden feature, considerations of the plants usefulness as a food source also takes on new meanings. What may have been taken for granted in a plant which provided food in the past, now in this context can be appreciated for its aesthetic, emotional and spiritual qualities.
The gardens featured here attracted an incredibly large and diverse crowd of people who wanted to experience this place with their families and connect with others. In my last visit to this garden I sat on the straw bales which define the perimeter and had a great time chatting with the people next to me. Watching the huge crowds of people enjoying this garden I saw young people taking in the scene, an Asian grandfather excitedly pointing out plants to his family, gardeners in straw hats, mothers and fathers, both gay and straight. It came to me that even though people could certainly visit a community garden to see edible plants, it was the very fact that this garden was placed in our most public of places, the Civic Center Plaza, that created a setting where everyone felt they could participate. Blair Russell remarked “This garden in this particular setting creates a civic engagement; people of all backgrounds come together here and discuss what kind of city they want to live in.”