Located 25 miles north of San Diego, the Southern California beach town of Encinitas has historically been a hotbed of agriculture, with everything from lima beans to avocados to citrus and cut flowers growing in its Mediterranean climate.
But as the city’s population has grown over the years, more and more land that was once used for farming has given way to neighborhoods and other development.
This dynamic was a motivator for the founders of the Encinitas Community Garden. The garden opened in fall 2015, but planning and work on the project began more than eight years before the first trowels hit garden soil.
Those years of work have paid off, though, as the garden is now bringing community members together in new ways, and reconnecting an urbanizing community with where its food comes from.
“For the people who are living in these tighter communities, really, they don’t have any space to grow, they don’t have options to get into the dirt,” said Board Member Doug Mahlstedt. “This was an answer to that.”
Embraced by the community
The community garden’s 89 initial plots filled up quickly once they opened to members, Mahlstedt said. The garden now maintains a waiting list.
“For me, one of the best parts of it has been meeting neighbors I never would have met before. It’s definitely a mixture of families with kids and some closer to retirement age,” Mahlstedt said.
The garden is located on three-quarters of an acre on land leased from the Encinitas Union School District. It is next to the schools’ Farm Lab, a 10-acre interactive learning center that grows food for the schools’ use and educates students about agriculture.
Mahlstedt said the co-location offers some mutual benefits. Educators have brought students over to examine the raised beds in the garden, and the community garden can take advantage of having a like-minded neighbor.
The garden is truly a community initiative. Construction of the plots was done with volunteer labor, and many other projects around the garden have been made possible with volunteers from the Boy Scouts, Rotary clubs, church groups and individuals not connected with the garden.
“It was really amazing to see all the help we got,” Mahlstedt said.
The group used an assembly line to construct the raised-bed boxes, which have wire mesh on the bottom to prevent gophers from digging into plots. When rabbits discovered the newly opened garden, another volunteer brigade came out to dig a trench around the garden’s perimeter fence and bury wire mesh to rabbit-proof the facility.
Educating is key
There’s always some kind of predator to chase, and the Encinitas Community Garden is an organic garden, so when pests arrive, the best weapon is often the knowledge and experience of a supportive board, whose members make themselves available to garden members to help them trouble-shoot problems, and arrange occasional seminars to help members learn about a specific topic.
“Our goal is to make ourselves available and let people know we’re here to help,” Mahlstedt said.
Gardeners have access to donated tools that are kept in a locked storage box, so that, “you basically just roll up and start gardening,” Mahlstedt said.
The nonprofit organization that runs the garden also goes the extra mile to make the facility a place where learning and connection with plants can occur.
Along the western edge of the garden, the organization has planted around 70 fruit trees, including apples, peaches, pears, figs, persimmons, pomegranates, citrus, allspice and more.
Mahlstedt discovered Plants Map when he was looking for tags to label the trees. When he read that Plants Map’s interactive plant tags and signs also include QR codes that can link to more information on that plant’s Plants Map profile, he saw an opportunity to connect with a new generation of gardeners.
“I just envisioned this awesome experience where a family comes to the garden and the kids are running around and they see the tag and scan the code and they get the Internet interaction they’re used to but they’re talking about plants,” he said.
The trees are an example of the wide range of plants that can be grown in Southern California’s Mediterranean climate. Tucked in to this mini-orchard are exotic species like the South American Surinam Cherry, Macadamia and guava trees. You will also find a Pink Lemonade Tree, a variegated leaf and stripped fruit lemon with pink flesh, and a Nagami kumquat.
Mahlstedt said he’s excited that the Plants Map tags can both label the trees with basic information to identify them, but then offer much more information when the code is scanned. “I want to give the details on what the fruit looks like, what it tastes like, if you have to peel it, or eat the whole thing,” he said. “To me, it’s empowering.”
Growing much more than food
As he’s watched members cultivate their plots, Mahlstedt has been struck by the sense of community that has grown alongside the plants in the garden.
“It’s community interaction that I just don’t think would happen otherwise,” he said. “You have people from many different walks of life, and you have them working on their plots right next to each other and sharing stories. To me, those are benefits that you can’t really quantify.”
And every time he watches a child at the garden walk up to a strawberry plant, pick a fruit, taste it and learn a little something from one of the more experienced gardeners, he sees that as a small step this rapidly growing city is taking back to its agricultural roots.
To learn more, visit Encinitas Community Garden on Plants Map.