When the pandemic came, some people drank about it, some people wrote about it — and some people planted potatoes about it.
In the heart of South San José, next to a housing project for low-income seniors, is a small community garden on land belonging to St. Stephen’s in-the-Field Episcopal Church. Most of the gardeners are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and most speak Mandarin. Jessica Dickinson Goodman had volunteered in the garden for about a year before the pandemic hit. When the area went into lockdown, she thought of the seedlings that were part of the garden’s seed library; they included fruit vines, native plants, and even some transplanted volunteer oaks from a 450-year old mother valley oak.
“People are dying in hospitals, hospices, and homes; they are today and they were on March 17. But I’m not a doctor or a nurse. So I solved the problem in front of me. I had to get the seedlings out,” says Jessica.
She and several other volunteers gathered up the seedlings and distributed them to the homes of volunteers across 3 counties, into what would become the deployed community garden. From an international education professional in Alameda to a theology graduate student in Willow Glen to the Vice Mayor of Sunnyvale, different volunteers took plants into their gardens and the patios of their apartments. They did this because, at that time, they didn’t know when or if they could safely bring volunteers into the garden again.
As the world came to understand how COVID-19 spreads, and that it was safe to share space outside with social distancing and masks, Jessica began to spend her usual 10 hours a week in the garden again. She made signs explaining the social distancing rules and had them translated into Spanish, Mandarin, and Assyrian; on the back of the signs she had the phrase “All are welcome here” printed in 14 languages.
Last week, Jessica was able to let the elders know that new garden beds were ready for them. The Pollination Project supported the garden through the purchase of dirt and other materials to allow the garden to expand.
“The new dirt is rich and will allow significantly more gardeners than we had before. It means so much for the elders to be able to have a safe place to walk, every day. To have benches to sit on, every day. To be able to interact with each other and the garden volunteers, and to have that human connection” says Jessica. “I’ve also seen in our volunteers this same need, to be around people outside of our homes in a way that is safe. Before COVID-19, it was hard to get volunteers in the garden. Now, we regularly have 6-10 volunteers on Saturday mornings, kids illustrating the sidewalk with chalk in between rounds helping build beds, elders meeting new people in a way that is safe and consistent. This grant has energized the volunteer community, provided material benefit, and helped us leverage resources we weren’t able to use before.”
The garden is seeding other things, too.
Jessica’s friend Arike
Jessica’s friend Arike is also an active volunteer. They’re 5’10 with short copper hair and a fondness for brown overalls. They moved to Silicon Valley from Holland. They just started gardening last year, but fell in love with the garden, growing peas and potatoes and a small olive tree in their garden bed. Like Jessica, they’re a queer person, and outside of the garden, they’ve both sometimes found it difficult to connect with elders in the community who may find their pronouns or identities unfamiliar. That lived reality means Jessica and Arike are careful about how they come out to the elders, since words like “bisexual” or “asexual” or “biromantic” or “non-binary” aren’t always easy to translate. But the elders in the garden know them and have chosen to continue building relationships with them.
Last Monday, elderly gardeners Ms. Cho and her husband Mr. Wang noticed that a squirrel had eaten several of Arike’s seedlings. When Ms. Cho saw how upset Arike was, using careful words and social distancing, Ms. Cho brought out her old spade and pulled up one of her purple flowering bean seedlings. She brought it to Arike, eyes smiling over her mask.
Community gardens are as much about community as they are about gardening.
Friendship blooms eternal.