A Little Old-fashioned Step Back into the Future

Even though you can see Nations and Baskin Robbins and the Police Station over its vine-shrouded white fence, the Benicia Community Garden is easy to miss. It’s on a small hill tucked back from the road, and walking there feels not unlike trespassing through a churchyard. But the garden’s secrecy has nothing to do with exclusion; one would be hard pressed to find an arecornna in town more welcoming toward strangers.

Soon after I entered the garden gates, Judy Sullivan, a Benicia Community Garden member, pulls me a few sprigs of lemon verbena, and instructs me on its uses. “I just hang it upside down in a north-facing window. I dry it but I also use it fresh for tea. You just shuck it like you would a thing of corn.” The plant has a soft papery feel and smells mysteriously of lemonheads.

Mrs. Sullivan is soft-voiced, silver-haired and considerate enough of my amateurism to spell out V-E-R-B-E-N-A. She came here with her husband Sam, a well-tanned man watering the tomatoes, arugula and Swiss chard in their lot. Both garden here regularly, and in doing so they belong to a motley but select club whose membership includes a trained biologist, four homeschooled children, and a retiree in her eighties. And their ranks are growing: two recent members have been learning how to garden with upside-down tomato bags.

“We call it an oasis,” says Community Garden Board member Marilyn Bardet. “We’re in the busiest intersection in Benicia, full of car traffic and fumes, and we have a picnic on the first of every month, religiously, rain or shine…it’s a little old-fashioned step back into the future.”
As we crunch our way over a woodchip path that runs past rosemary bushes, squashes and serpentine tomato plants, the paradoxical phrase rings true: a healthy and palpable sense of atavism pervades the place. Here old knowledge is being unearthed for explicitly modern purposes.

“We’re trying to recover lost arts,” says Bardet. To her the art seems to have been lost in the late fifties and early sixties, when the national reverence for things grown was buried under a giant tomb of meatloaf and Wonder Bread, when highways and cheap fuel eliminated the meddling of the seasons, and when the delicacies or horticulture gave way to readymade meals and preserved foods that seemed never to go bad, even if they never tasted good to begin with.

garden bedsBardet recalls those days with a smile that winces. “My mother actually has a cookbook by Peg Bracken called The I Hate to Cook Book.”
But the work members do amounts to more than a personal hobby and culinary advantage; gardening is serious business, and with the looming ecological and economic troubles facing humanity, it wouldn’t take too great a shaking of the world’s foundation to make one’s relaxing hobby turn into a vital means of sustenance, much like the victory gardens were for citizens in WWII.

“Five years ago I felt like I was hit by the cosmic meatball when I really began reading seriously about the energy crisis and what the future holds. I don’t believe that the future’s going to resemble the past. There’s going to be a need for people to know basic things.”

Such statements suggest something Bardet readily acknowledges. Seclusion and intimacy notwithstanding, she sometimes wishes this private oasis were a little more like a public plaza, a low-pressure environment people regularly visit to garden, talk shop or just enjoy the company of the vegetative world. Lucky for her, and for Benicia, her group might soon come into a second property capable of fostering such an atmosphere.

A Plot to Make a Better World

Members of the Benicia Community Garden have had discussions with Estey Real Estate, who manages the property, about acquiring a lease on a prime piece of land located at the apex of downtown’s pedestrian traffic. The lot is located at 1st and D Streets across from the Union Hotel and, in the twenty four years Bardet’s lived in Benicia, it’s never been sold. The owners have occasionally leased it for Christmas trees, pony rides, and even for a small nursery. Now only weeds grow, and they grow there so abundantly that it has to be mowed every month to comply with city fire code. With so many talented gardeners willing to mow it for free, pursuing the property seemed a logical step.

“If we pay them a nominal fee and eliminate their monthly mowing charge we could have a beautiful garden that could be ripped out if anybody ever wanted to buy the land,” says Bardet. The Presbyterian Church charges $1 for their current property, and to get the project off the ground, BCG may have to dip into the $20,000 they received from the 2010 settlement agreement between the Good Neighbor Steering Committee and Valero.

Though a second garden would be larger than the current one, the group’s inclusive policy wouldn’t change. BCG’s only rules are the minimal ones of common sense and neighborly conduct. Each person maintains their own bed and contributes to water costs. If people leave their beds fallow in winter, gardeners will sometimes ask them to use that bed to plant fava beans, something that gives nitrogen back to the soil. Sharing is strenuously encouraged; hassling is not. And it’s all organic. Whatever adulterants enter the soil will likely be inherited by the next gardener, so pests meet their end by soap sprays and lady bugs. farmer's market

There would be one significant change though: the new garden, should it move forward, wouldn’t have costly raised garden beds. “Instead we’d build rounded mounds, and irrigate them by putting straw down to keep down the weeds and create a definition between the path part and the garden,” says Ms. Bardet. But she won’t say much beyond that, not because she doesn’t want to speculate, but because she doesn’t want to impose. “Whatever anybody wants,” she says. “We’re not saying what this garden should be. What we need is to get the word out.”

She hopes the new garden would be more than just the public face of the organization, and starts a movement that causes satellite gardens to sprout up around the city. She has been keenly following San Francisco’s innovations in urban gardening, where every nook is fair game for growing and, “even median strips are being planted.” The BCG would aim to increase membership with a second location, but more than that they want to spread their wisdom as far as they can.

“There’s an ebb and flow here. People come and learn and they stay a couple of years and then they might leave the garden and we get someone new in. It’s a training place. We’re growing gardeners. It’s kind of our motto.”

Those interested in gardening, or in donating their shoulders, tools, or supplies to BCG can contact Marilyn Bardet at mjbardet@sbcglobal.net. Novices and fans are also encouraged to visit the garden on Wednesdays from twelve to two to learn the tricks of the trade, says BCG co-founder and master gardener Meg Grumio.