Kaythar Almufti stood in front of his tented ground covering, showing off the burlap sunshade he stitched for his garden plot earlier that week and the tiny sprouts underneath it, poking up through the ground.
The sun descended steadily behind him in the early evening as he spoke of his plans to grow Iraqi chard, okra and eggplant in the plot he’s been developing in an El Cajon community garden.
“If you use Mycorrhizae, it will give you giant vegetables, huge ones,” he said. “But to grow anything, plants need heat and a good environment.”
The competition is fierce among the El Cajon gardeners to produce the best and healthiest-looking vegetables in the garden, Almufti said. But they all motivate each other to keep up the difficult work.
Almufti was an early adopter to the community garden lifestyle, both in Iraq and in El Cajon, where he says he and his family have been growing vegetables since the New Roots Fresh Farm Community Garden opened in 2013.
The garden has brought the community together and allowed them to invest in the land, a sentiment that is shared across community gardens in San Diego as diverse groups join together in these public spaces. These gardens have paved the way toward community building by providing an active public space for gathering and producing fruit, vegetables and plants. The gardens have also led to collective perceptions of increased safety among dangerous areas, and strengthened a diverse network of neighbors throughout San Diego County.
The first bloom
Judith Jacoby is the founder and co-director of the San Diego Community Garden Network, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote sustainability, education and community through gardening.
She noticed the scarcity of community gardens in the county when she moved to San Diego from New York, Jacoby said.
“When I looked at gardens here, the ones that did exist, for the most part, they were not very community-minded,” Jacoby said. “They were almost always locked and not accessible to people who didn’t have a plot in the garden, and we really see community gardens as, well, for the community.”
She also noticed differences in attitudes toward these types of public forums. When she started the network, she found many people in the community garden areas didn’t want them, citing the fact that they didn’t want people they didn’t know coming in and out of the neighborhood. Since then, people have learned to appreciate the diverse company that the gardens bring.
The gardens function as a community-organizing tool so people can learn to do new things and feel a sense of accomplishment in a “fairly simple way through their neighborhood,” Jacoby said.
Kaley Hearnsberger is a Food Security and Community Health Supervisor for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that functions as a resettlement agency in San Diego for refugees to make sure they successfully adjust to their new lives.
She also works as the project manager for the City Heights New Roots Community Farm and said changes in the community have been noticeable.
“The New Roots Community Farm directly impacts the surrounding area by creating green space in the park deficient neighborhood of City Heights,” Hearnsberger said. “It also supports the community by offering spaces for people to grow their own food and even make a little extra money on the side by selling crops at local markets such as the City Heights Farmer’s Market.”
VIDEO: Sitey Mbere and Camarino Fierros share their gardening experiences in the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights.
Almufti’s uncle, Sabah Mansoor, who gardens at the IRC’s El Cajon community farm, is one of these people, who said the garden provides him with happiness and a way to make extra money.
“It’s good,” Mansoor said. “I’m very happy with my garden, we can sell sometimes and make some money.”
Mansoor sells his vegetables at the El Cajon Farmer’s Market on Thursdays when he’s not using it to make Dolma, a popular Iraqi stuffed vegetable dish and other meals for his family and friends. Mansoor said he has many friends he’s made in the garden whom share gardening tips and encouragement.
A safe haven
According to a study by the American Journal of Community Psychology, community gardens have enhanced neighborhood ties and can even increase perceived safety in the areas surrounding these public spaces.
Jacoby said this is reflected in the attitudes of parents in the City Heights community, which houses the first New Roots Community Farm managed by the IRC. The City Heights garden, with a widely diverse population that includes African, Asian and Latino gardeners, sees a gathering of community members daily and a variety of ethnicities and ages.
Because of this, parents feel more at ease with their children out and about in the community.
“It makes the street safer,” she said. “People are always there, and before parents wouldn’t let their kids out past six. Because we have such a diverse bunch of gardeners, it acts as a sort of surveillance for the community.”
A study of community gardens in Houston, published by the American Society for Horticultural Science in 2009, found that while crime rates did not go down in the area, perceptions of reduced crime in the community were apparent.
The study compared randomized areas to areas surrounding community gardens and found no statistical differences in the crime rate, though garden representatives shared that they felt the neighborhood had been revitalized by the gardens and felt “perceived immunity from crime.”
Sitey Mbere, a Somalian immigrant who owns a plot at the City Heights garden, said tools were stolen from her and other gardeners, so she didn’t consider the space necessarily safe.
But Camarino Fierros, a long-time gardener at the City Heights location said he’s seen young people in the community join in at the garden with their families.
“They come here with their families and work hard and enjoy the garden,” Fierros said. “These kids could easily get into trouble in our neighborhood but they are here instead.”
Hearnsberger said while there is no hard evidence that safety has increased in the surrounding area, the garden has worked as a crime prevention measure by design.
“Any time you create a space that is used by people instead of abandoned, it builds community and thus more accountability,” she said.
Community vines to intertwine
Jacoby said she’s proud of the gardens and the opportunities they provide for residents throughout San Diego County.
“I’m very excited about our gardens,” she said. “They help people to learn how to communicate, discuss, and come to peaceful solutions. They learn more about each other and differences in opinion.”
She said the Gardening Network is now working on finding ways to get the more than ninety gardens across San Diego County to support each other through shared resources and knowledge.