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SF plans to launch an Urban Agriculture Resource Center for community gardeners

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John Stokes and Rachel Lane discuss how to straighten a tree at Alemany Farm, one of The City’s community gardens, on Wednesday.(Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

As part of its growing support for urban agriculture, the Recreation and Park Department plans to launch a new garden resource center in the southeast part of San Francisco to provide supplies, plant starters and advice for community gardeners.

The site would include a fruit tree nursery, orchard space and space for managed beehives.

Mei Ling Hui, Rec and Park’s program manager of community gardens and urban agriculture, told the Recreation and Parks Commission about the plans for the center Thursday when presenting an annual report on the department’s Urban Agriculture Program.

The center would have demonstration plant beds, a greenhouse to grow plant starts to give away to gardeners and a station for experienced gardeners to give all sorts of gardening advice.

Calling it a “master gardeners help desk,” Hui said that “this is a service that San Francisco doesn’t really receive right now.”

“Master gardeners are volunteers that provide ‘advice to grow by’ — that is their motto — to community members,” she said. “You can walk up with a leaf and ask them what’s wrong with it, what’s wrong with your plant and they will tell you how to manage it organically. You can ask them what kind of tomato will grow well in your neighborhood and they will let you know that as well.”

The project is in “its early phases” and details around size, cost and a specific site are still being worked out.

Lauren Lewis, a co-coordinator with the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit that supports growing food in The City, said that they have noticed an increase of support around community gardens and the people using them.

She said the planned resource center is “one great approach” to also support those gardeners who aren’t using community gardens.

“In the future, we’d love for The City to also help solve the problem of gardens that need resources delivered to them directly,” Lewis said in an email. “Compost, mulch, etc. in any meaningful quantity needs transportation via pickup truck, and many gardens, for example SFUAA member Northridge Coop Community Garden, could really use help periodically getting resources to them.”

The proposed resource center is a sign of what Recreation and Park Department’s general manager Phil Ginsburg called a turnaround of the program. After urban agriculture supporters criticized The City’s management of community gardens and called it fragmented, the program was reorganized and Hui hired as the manager.

Ginsburg said that the “turnaround” seen over the past two years was “remarkable.” In the past, he said, it felt like there was a “landlord-tenant relationship” with the gardeners who’d call and complain when something was broken.

“There was little engagement between the department and our different community garden plots,” he said. “They have turned this into a real program.”

The program currently oversees 42 community gardens, comprising nine acres with 1,155 plots, “an 8 percent increase from last fiscal year,” Hui said. Wait lists for those who want access to the plots are kept by garden site, which are used primarily for growing food, although some do grow flowers.

The program focused last fiscal year on improving site conditions, increasing public access and engagement and developing program efficiencies.

For example, $404,000 was spent in site repairs benefiting 20 gardens and two gardens, Corona Heights Community Garden and Page Street Community Garden, were “fully rebuilt.”

Two new gardens also opened: In Chan Kaajal Community Garden at 17th and Folsom streets, and the Geneva Community Garden at Geneva and Delano avenues.

In addition to workshops and volunteer statistics, Hui’s report included this notable detail about San Francisco’s largest farm:

“Alemany Farm grew 23,000 pounds of fresh produce that was provided to community members at no-cost at the end of each workday, during you-pick harvest days, and through two neighborhood pantries.”

In other notable garden news, next month on March 23 there will be a grand opening of the McClaren Park community garden. And City staff plans to build garden beds early next month at the Navigation Center in the Bayview that homeless residents staying there would help tend.

Recreation and Park Departmet’s 42 community garden locations. (Courtesy of Recreation and Park Department)

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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