Community gardeners of Beach Flats wonder what’s next
Upon entering through a rickety wooden gate, visitors of the Beach Flats Community Garden step into a different world—they can barely see the metal of the fence behind the beans and chayote, a trellising Latin American vegetable in the gourd family, and large corn stalks stretch high, throwing shade on a sunny afternoon.
The Beach Flats Community Garden, known to many of its mostly Spanish-speaking gardeners as el Jardín de la Comunidad de la Playa, is not your average community garden. Instead of small parcels in raised beds, the plots here are large and teeming with food crops, which have grown from seeds brought directly from Mexico.
But the face of the long-established garden may change drastically this fall. In March, the gardeners received a letter from the City of Santa Cruz notifying them to prepare to clear out their plantings by mid-November. The Seaside Company, which owns the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, has been leasing the land to the city to administer the garden for the last 20 years. The Seaside Company has decided to take the land back for its own “agricultural purposes that support the landscape and grounds of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and surrounding facilities,” according to an email from Kris Reyes, the Seaside Company’s spokesperson.
Reyes stresses that the garden is not going away. The city is planning on opening up garden plots in the contiguous Poets Park, and the Seaside Company has offered a smaller parcel for the gardeners to use. However, neither the Seaside Company nor the city will say how much of the current half-acre plot will be available for gardening. City officials are hoping to have a meeting in September, when they will outline a new plan.
Nevertheless, the gardeners are dismayed by the idea of downsizing or moving.
“These gardeners have put years of their lives into improving the soil and to saving seed stock,” says Dr. Michelle Glowa, an associate professor of anthropology at California Institute for Integral Studies who once had a plot in the garden and is now helping the gardeners’ efforts to preserve the garden. “It is an oasis, especially in a community that during the summer is inundated with tourism and really pays the price for the rest of the Santa Cruz community for the benefits that the tourism brings us.”
Since its inception in 1994, the garden has played an important role in the Beach Flats area and wider Santa Cruz community. It has made positive impacts in local health, and provided a fertile ground for research and even education.
Life Lab, a garden-based educational nonprofit, first tested its Spanish curriculum in the garden, says Glowa. The garden was also home to know-your-rights workshops. “Different programs have come in and out, but it continues to be an important place for parents to be able to bring their children,” says Glowa.
The garden also serves as a gathering place for young and old, says Marco Orellana, who has had a plot in the garden for 13 years. “What do we do when there are elders in our society?” Orellana asks. “We think it is important to take care of them. We take care of the elders in this garden. This is where they come every day.”
One such man is Don Domingo Mendoza, an 82-year-old gardener who has worked at the community garden since it began. When asked what he likes about the garden, he doesn’t say much. Instead, he stands up slowly and begins showing me his garden plot. Mendoza is partially blind and losing his hearing. He has to hold on to trellises to stand up for any amount of time. He comes to the garden every day, sweeps the entrance of the garden and tends his plot. With the help of his fellow gardeners, he grows corn, squash, tomatoes, apples, strawberries, and traditional herbs, such as yerba santa.
“The crops that they are producing are in massive quantities—thousands of pounds of produce a year—and that is food for their community,” says Glowa. “It makes a real, significant difference in the [Beach Flats] community. They talk about how their neighbors come by when they are in need of something, and they are more than happy to give generously the food that is needed.”
The garden is also ecologically significant. For the last three years, UCSC agroecology researchers have been investigating the garden’s insect populations. Environmental Studies professor Stacy Philpott and others have been looking into how the garden supports biodiversity. Research suggests that garden patches in highly urbanized areas play especially important roles by providing habitat for pollinators. A larger diversity of pollinators makes for a more diverse overall ecosystem.
In their studies, the Beach Flats Garden had the highest pollinator diversity out of the 18 gardens in the Central Coast that they are researching. “The Beach Flats garden is so important because the surrounding area is so covered in concrete,” Philpott says. “It is one of the only spots in that area where there are things growing, so of course it’s going to be a haven for bugs looking for a place to forage.”
A coalition of more than 15 people—community organizations, residents, neighbors and gardeners—have come together to try to save the garden. Part of their efforts include a harvest festival at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29. The festival will include music, food prepared from the garden, spoken word, and activities for kids.
Additionally, they are currently circulating a petition on beachflatsgarden.org with more than 800 signatures, calling on the City of Santa Cruz and the Seaside Company to work with the community to find a long-term solution to keep the garden in its entirety. “The Seaside Company has a lot of resources that they could devote to meeting this need of theirs,” says Glowa.
Boardwalk spokesperson Reyes says he is very proud of what the Seaside Company does for Santa Cruz, and that the company will continue providing a portion of its garden for the community.
“We continue to make land available to the city so they can operate a garden in the Beach Flats,” Reyes says, via email. “I’m sorry that for some people our contribution is not large enough or does not meet their individually determined standards of what generosity is. At some point this becomes a cautionary tale to others that be careful what you contribute, because some will be aggressive in their criticism that it is not good enough. Despite this criticism, I am proud that we are continuing to support the community garden by donating the land on which it will sit.”
The Beach Flats Community Harvest Festival will be at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29. There will be music, spoken word, activities and food.
UPROOTED Don Domingo Mendoza has been gardening at the Beach Flats Community Garden since it opened 20 years ago. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER