The second chapter to my visit to the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco’s Mission District happened by accident, but turned out to be another inspiring and affirming story of our local food system at work. Turns out the secret garden I mentioned in my last post has a name: All in Common Garden. Guided by my instructions to find the purple painted fence, and motivated by the hope that I might meet the Free Farm Stand’s founder, Tree, I set off to find this mysterious garden. Conveniently, it is was just two blocks from the Free Farm Stand and open for visitors. So inside I went!
Upon entering the garden, I started having flashbacks to the 1993 film The Secret Garden (I know I’m dating myself). After stepping through a precarious-looking large metal gate, I meandered through a shaded tunnel of bamboo and stepped out in to a glistening sunlit sea of green with flowers blooming, birds chirping and not a human soul in sight. I stood for a second to take in the sight and then reached for my phone as is the custom these days. I snapped some photos, but truthfully it felt almost sacrilegious to pull out my image-absorbing high-tech gadget in such the pristinely humble home of Nature. Fortunately my affront wasn’t noticed when I spotted two people inside the greenhouse. I walked up to the open door and said, “Hi, are you Tree?” The white-bearded man in his soil speckled overalls replied in an almost hushed voice, “I am”.
And thus my conversation with Tree began.
Naturally, one of my first questions was how the idea of Free Farm Stand came to be. Mind you, the whole time we talked, Tree was nestling flower seeds into small starter trays. He told me he’d been involved in growing and giving out food for decades, but recently had the desire to hand out flowers to the community. A different, yet still very potent kind of medicine.
Tree’s response to my initial question still has my wheels spinning. It was so genuine and humbling that I felt it would be an injustice to paraphrase. With Tree’s permission I recorded our conversation, and have written out his reply:
“In 2008 there was a big movement. You know, Michael Pollan was writing and there was a lot of interest in ‘growing local’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’. I was in between projects and I had been gardening for a long time. I had been giving food away with different food programs or shelters or things like that, and I thought that this [movement] was something I related to and I had been doing: growing food locally. So I had the idea of combining two projects: growing food and giving it away, and encouraging neighbors to grow food as a way of addressing hunger. In other words, I thought that this would be a good way of educating people and getting people to think about growing some of their own food. So, that was the original idea…”
He trails for a second… pauses… and then shares this:
“I say that, but the original idea behind everything is that… the world is a messed up place right now in some ways. And if you care about things, what do you do about it? What I believe, is it’s a spiritual problem. We need to address bigger issues, although immediate issues of hunger and housing need be addressed as much as we can, but we won’t solve the problem unless we solve the larger problem – which is a very deep problem – of dealing with greed and capitalism, which fosters greed and a mentality of scarcity. So behind it all [the Free Farm Stand and All in Common Garden] is a shortcut way of bringing people together to think differently. I don’t want to sound like an Apple advertisement, but we need people to think differently in how they interact with each other. So the idea of giving things away for free and sharing resources is to understand that there really is an abundance in the world. You learn that when you’re a gardener, that there’s so much abundance if you do things the right way in a sustainable manner. And if you share things with people instead of trying to sell things to people, that promotes a different mindset which leads, I think, to a community of people that are behaving differently than just being robots and having jobs and surviving and… things like that. So that was behind the thinking.”
Thank you, Tree. You’ve just inherited a new lifetime fan.
Our conversation went on and Tree talked about the many community gardens that have closed around the city, a sign he believes, that the ‘real’ local food movement of growing and sharing food was just a fad. Now we see restaurants touting “Locally grown, Locally raised” and charging a hefty premium, rendering locally grown food largely inaccessible to many locals.
Shortly after that point in our conversation, we had a visitor join us in the greenhouse. A young boy, maybe 3 or 4, came up to the doorway followed by his dad who was encouraging him forward. Eli had a question about the mushrooms growing in the garden. Were they poisonous, he wanted to know. You see, just as I had stepped through the purple fence that day, so too do many passer-bys. No invitation or reservation required. There are no individual plots in this garden, no fencing or borders. Anyone is welcome to stroll through, eat a tomato, sit and watch the birds and/or pick up a shovel and participate in the fun of maintaining the garden. Eli and his dad were just stopping through to see what was new in the garden, and the funny shaped fungi sparked little Eli’s interest. Future Farmer of America, we can only hope. I also met Francesca and Sarah, two volunteers who help out at the garden. Sarah was adding mulch around a bench beneath the giant avocado tree. She said she wasn’t that interested in volunteering at the Farm Stand, but felt that by helping out in the garden, she was getting her ‘zen time’ while also giving back to her community.
‘When you’re a gardener, you learn that there is so much abundance around you.’
So true. I saw the evidence of this abundance not just in the stalks and leaves spilling out of the garden beds at All in Common, but also in the abundance of vibrant community spirit, joyful laughter and genuine camaraderie amongst all those involved. I realize that not everyone has the time or desire to grow food, however I think there are many ways to ‘garden’ and create sustainable, healthy abundance in our lives. Just as Tree was searching for a way to do something about an issue he cared about, there are lots of opportunities for us to cultivate change in our own way.
So grab a shovel, and get going!