Permaculture Garden Flourished During COVID

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18th & Rhode Island Permaculture Garden, March 2021. Photo: Travers Flynn

At least one corner of Potrero Hill blossomed during the pandemic: the permaculture agriculture plot at Rhode Island and 18th streets. Founded in 2008, the holistic garden had fallen into disorder. When shelter-in-place began, Travers Flynn, who lives across the street, saw an opportunity to put his surplus time and energy to use.

“I was bored out of my mind and was all in on this place every day,” said Flynn, a photographer by trade. He added that the garden “kind of got abandoned for a bit” after a couple founders moved out of the City.

The biggest change was to the parcel’s eastern side, which had never been finished. Retaining walls, a garden bed and bench have been installed. 

”It’s never looked this good,” Flynn said.

Volunteers cultivated the first sizable harvest in some time from the garden in January. While open for the public to use and pick, most of the crop is donated to the Free Farm Stand, which operates from noon to 1 p.m. on Sundays at Parque Niños Unidos in the Mission.

According to Dennis “Tree” Rubenstein, who helps operate the stand, the garden contributed 94 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables from January to May. With new plantings that’s expected to increase. Although it can be deceptive to evaluate produce abundance by weight, in its heyday the garden yielded1,000 pounds a year.

The plot is a testament to what can be grown on just 0.11 acres. There are 40 fruit and nut trees including five figs that line Rhode Island Street, apple trees as high as six feet tall, avocados, which’re presently blossoming, and a Sapota that’s native to Central America. There’s even a Yuzu tree, which produces citrus popular in East Asia but banned from being imported into the United States to protect against the spread of diseases.

Among 23 species of row crops are scarlet runner beans, fava beans, leafy greens such as arugula and spinach, sunchokes, squash and a variety of potatoes. Tree collards, easy to pick, made up most of the January harvest.

“The asparagus is just getting going,” added Flynn. 

During the public health crisis Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, a Richmond, California company, provided kiwi, blueberries and raspberries to plant. Steve Hovland, who has a nursery in his garage near Potrero Avenue, brought kale, chard and other vegetables to cultivate. Emily Sugihara, chief executive officer of Baggu, a reusable bag company located in Dogpatch, donated mulch and helped finance a new roof for the shed. The concrete that forms the retaining walls is repurposed sidewalk provided by the City.

Flynn would like to revitalize two ponds, installing a fountain, drought permitting. 

Tree was one of the original volunteers when the garden was created. While the Free Farm Stand mostly offers local produce, there’s a “hecka local” category for places like the permaculture garden. Before the pandemic caused items to be pre-bagged, food was laid out on tables and labeled as to place of origin.

“The idea behind it is to educate people where the food comes from and how special it is to grow food on empty lots and direct towards people in need,” he said. “We can grow a lot more food in cities if there was more interest.”

The garden was established and is overseen by the San Francisco Permaculture Guild, a nonprofit that holds educational and social events to promote sustainable and self-sufficient farming. The Guild was founded in the late-1990s as a club for people enthusiastic about permaculture. The term, short for permanent agriculture, means working with natural forces – wind, rain and sun – to provide all a garden’s needs after seeding and planting. The approach doesn’t require as much labor as other framing practices, since the land isn’t overworked.

“Permaculture is a design system for meeting human needs that restore and regenerate the environment,” member Kevin Bayuk explained.

In 2014, the parcel was the first to qualify under the City’s newly-created urban agricultural zoning, which provides a tax reduction for land used for farming. In a municipal press release issued when the program was launched, the property owner, Dr. Aaron Roland, a family physician, was quoted saying he hoped the new law would “inspire other landowners to step back from the search for a way to squeeze out another dollar from each square foot of land” and consider urban space uses that benefit communities.