Seattle P-Patch community gardenMind your Ps and queues: A P-Patch community garden in Seattle’s International District. Many of the patches have long waiting lists for plots.Photo courtesy slightlynorth via Flickr

By Darby Minow Smith

P-Patch Community Gardens
Headquartered at Seattle Municipal Tower, with 73 gardens around the city

What: A city government program that assists communities in acquiring land for community gardens and helps in managing them. 

Roots of the project: The first P-Patch garden grew out of a social climate not unlike today. Local economic upheaval, booming social activism, and the countrywide “back-to-the-land movement” were all flourishing at the start of the ‘70s in Seattle.

These factors motivated a local college student to start a community garden on land belonging to a family called Picardo (P-Patch’s namesake). The student, Darlyn Runberg Del Boca, persuaded the City of Seattle to lease the lot for the price of its property taxes.

By the end of the ‘70s, 10 other P-Patches were growing around Seattle, according to the organization’s extensive history of the program.

Forty years later, through varying degrees of community interest and support — in 1983, a Seattle Times headline asked, “Has the P-Patch Program Gone Fallow?” — the program is stronger than ever. The city has plans to add two to three new patches a year. Some gardens have years-long waiting lists for plots.

Nowadays, P-Patch works with a neighborhood community to find a vacant piece of land — whether a privately owned overgrown lot, or government land set aside for road right-of-ways. The program helps the community attain permission for a garden and lobbies on its behalf. This wins community’s land away from less desirable uses, such as drug dealers hiding in the blackberries to Blackberry -wielding golfers.

The harvest: P-Patch Community Garden Coordinator Julie Bryan is fond of the phrase “By the people, for the people.” And in a rare win for government, it seems to ring true for a municipal program.

Often other nonprofit or government programs spring up alongside patches. Some gardens have low-income housing built around them. At three of the gardens, gardeners are allowed to sell produce to supplement their income and to share the garden with the rest of the community.

Bryan drove me around to a few patches in her cluttered station wagon with a tie-dyed car-key cover. I asked that hardened bureaucrat — she’s been with P-Patch 15 years — what her favorite part of the job was. She smiled and said, “You’re about to meet them.”

Although P-Patch prefers plots that are rectangular, the patches themselves are as varied and unique as the Seattle neighborhoods themselves. The program keeps statistics on the diversity of each neighborhood and aims to have it reflected in the gardeners.

Bryan can guess the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood just by taking a look in the vegetable beds. At the first garden we stop at, the High Point Market Garden in West Seattle, the gardeners are primarily a mix of Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese immigrants — countries that often have border disputes. Here, “they talk, they share recipes, they find out they have a lot in common,” Julie says. And they garden side by side.

Alleycat volunteers harvestLots of food: Alleycat Acres volunteers harvesting from one of the group’s donated sites. Photo courtesy e_pants via Flickr

By Tyler Falk

Alleycat Acres
Beacon Hill and Central District neighborhoods

What: A nonprofit urban farming collective.

Roots of the project: In late 2009, Sean Conroe sent an email to people interested in urban agriculture to see if they’d be interested in starting an urban farming collective. In January, a group met to discuss how they wanted to run an urban farm. Only a week after their first meeting, a landowner in the Beacon Hill neighborhood donated a vacant lot — and Alleycat Acres was born. “It was a bunch of strangers. None of us had really met before,” says Gia Clark, one of seven lead Alleycats. “It was all Internet-based.”

Harvest: Seven volunteers started farming on vacant lots in Seattle’s Beacon Hill and Central District neighborhoods. But instead of dividing the land into plots for individuals to tend, the group works with volunteers from the community to do the work in exchange for some of the produce that is harvested.

“It’s a work-share. If you’re a volunteer, you get to have food, and what we don’t give to the volunteers that come work, we either hand out to people who walk by or we deliver to the Beacon Avenue Food Bank,” says Clark.

So far, volunteers for Alleycat Acres
have logged more than 1,500 hours and donated 400 pounds of produce. And because the focus is on feeding the community, you don’t have people planting the same produce right next to each other, as they do in “community gardens” tended by individual families. “Instead of it being individually based and having the essence of private property, what we’re looking at is more of a collective use of land. In order to get that high-yield farm production, everyone is contributing to every square inch,” Clark explains. And so you are actually able to grow everything together.”

Alleycat Acres is just in its first year, but it hopes to grow by transplanting its model to other neighborhoods, starting up more community gardens that are sustained by the neighborhood.  

“We want community members to be farm managers — the people who’re coordinating the water, the work parties, the maintenance, and the deliveries. We essentially create a framework and give assistance when people need help,” Clark said.

There are obviously difficulties with the model. Finding vacant lots that can be used for urban farms is a challenge. Property values are high, unlike in many cities where urban agriculture is thriving. Still, Alleycat Acres provides an important model combining education, food security, and community spirit.

“We’re not proposing that we can feed the city of Seattle only through the venture,” Clark explains. “We’re saying is that this is a really important supplement to a food system that isn’t working.”


Goat Hill Giving GardenFree beds: Goat Hill Giving Garden in downtown Seattle donates its harvest to food banks and the nearby transient population.Photo: Stephanie Joyce

By Tyler Falk

Goat Hill Giving Garden
Downtown Seattle

What: A garden started in a vacant lot in downtown Seattle by King County employees.

Roots of the project: In 2009, King County employees came up with the idea to start a garden in a vacant lot across from their building. In June 2010, the garden, made with materials that were all scavenged or donated, was dedicated by King County Executive Dow Constantine.

Harvest: A grassroots garden is growing quickly in a sunny clearing of what was supposed to be a jail. While the fate of the land is in limbo, King County employees have put it to good use.

“Our reasons for creating the Goat Hill Giving Garden are to show [King County] employees how to eat smart and do this in their own yards,” says Caroline Hughes, a King County employee and one of the garden organizers. “It gives them a chance to move more, and stress less during their lunch break.”

The garden, which consists of six raised beds and 10 round planters, is maintained by county employees on a purely volunteer basis.

The garden is used as an education tool to teach county employees how to grow a lot in a limited space. Anyone can walk right up and see how the garden works, and expert volunteers offer classes on basic gardening topics. The garden is used by the county wastewater treatment to demonstrate the advantages of using their biosolid compost, GroCo.

County employees aren’t the only benefactors of the garden. All of the produce — so far 39 pounds, mostly lettuce — has been donated to Pike Market Senior Center & Downtown Food Bank.

A large transient population lives around the lot. They aren’t fenced out. “We know we’re planting something that isn’t normally here and that if people wander through the area and see something that looks good, they might take it,” said Hughes. “We’re not a P-Patch. We aren’t employees who are looking to take this stuff home. We’re donating it to a food bank and senior center anyway, so if some of that transient population does some pre-harvesting … well, they’ve just saved us a little bit of time.”

Unfortunately, this project can’t grow on forever — Hughes thinks they will have the garden for 5 to 10 years, “though we do have an understanding that if they need it for something that’s business related, of course we’re right out of there,” she said.