Seattle’s P-Patch Program

It’s great fun to grow one’s own vegetables, but it’s more than fun. It’s the very soul of gardening, where it all began.

Pat Welsh, All My Edens: A Gardener’s Memoir

The desire to grow our own food—even for those of us who live in the city—is strong, as evidenced by the potted tomato plant. Like a heat-seeking sunbather, it can be seen each summer on third-floor apartment balconies, in narrow planting strips next to the street, and grouped around utility poles—any sunny spot on small urban properties where the temperature may be a few degrees higher than the norm.

But for some urban gardeners, the urge is stronger. It isn’t one tomato plant, it’s a row of them. And a stand of lettuce. And hills of squash. And pole beans reaching for the sky. Or it may be bok choy, beets, collards and turnips. We know what tastes good, and we want to grow it.

In Seattle, the drive to grow has combined with the need to keep a few empty lots in the city, not only for city-sized farming, but also to preserve green and open space within the urban island, and to build a camaraderie among citizens who might otherwise feel isolated. The Seattle P-Patch Program does all this and more. What started with one site more than twenty years ago has grown to forty-two around the city, involving more than 4,600 gardeners.

All this began in 1973 with a small truck farm owned by the Picardo family. When the family sold their land, part of it—98,000 square feet—was sold to the city, and it became the first P-Patch site. The program was named as a tribute to the family for opting to save open space in an expanding residential part of the city. It’s also a play on words: the “P” in P-Patch stands for Picardo, but naturally evokes an image of the green English pea.

Sculpture merges with flowers and autumn produce, reflecting the community of artists and light industry that surrounds the Belltown P-Patch in Seattle. Photograph by RGT

Sculpture merges with flowers and autumn produce, reflecting the community of artists and light industry that surrounds the Belltown P-Patch in Seattle. Photograph by RGT

A Grass Roots Movement

The beginning of the P-Patch Program coincided with the back-to-the-earth movement of the early 1970s. “I have a sense that many of these community gardens across the country started at the same time,” says Rich MacDonald, P-Patch Program manager. “I recently read that previous movements to community gardening were connected to national disasters or war, and so directed from the top down, but the most recent movement was more grass-roots, and community-oriented.”

A whimsical fence and walls of mosaic enclose the Belltown P-Patch near downtown Seattle. Photograph by RGT

A whimsical fence and walls of mosaic enclose the Belltown P-Patch near downtown Seattle. Photograph by RGT

The P-Patch Program is run under the city’s Department of Neighborhoods. The sites are, literally, all over the map, many in residential areas, and a few in downtown or industrial areas. The land is owned by various entities, such as the parks or transportation department. The sites are as varied in character as they are geographically. The Belltown P-Patch, for example, is at the northern edge of downtown’s hottest area for condos and restaurants; the garden is actually surrounded by light industry, artists’ studios, and social services for the homeless. Anyone is welcome to visit the site, which has thirty-six plots. The artwork on the gates to the garden is evidence of its funky appeal.

Each site has its own characteristics, from soil to art to the kinds of vegetables grown. Most gardens include ornamental beds along the perimeter fence. Fencing P-Patch sites is for illusion and good looks, not for keeping people out. Visitors are encouraged to walk through a site, sit on the benches, and admire the beautiful flowers or a fine crop of peppers ripening in the sun; at the same time, of course, they are discouraged from damaging property and from harvesting someone else’s hard-earned crop.

Terraced beds turn a steep slope into a P-Patch garden at Phinney Ridge. Photographs courtesy of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, unless otherwise noted

Terraced beds turn a steep slope into a P-Patch garden at Phinney Ridge. Photographs courtesy of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, unless otherwise noted

Diverse and Inclusive

The gardening population is as diverse as the sites. Gardeners may be retired couples, young families, Asian, Hispanic, or, as seen more recently, immigrants from former Soviet bloc countries.

The sites range in size from Admiral, with just seven plots, to Picardo, with 281. At another small site in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood, gardeners terraced a thirty percent grade to create eighteen plots. P-Patchers that negotiate the hill to do their gardening call it Billy Goat’s Bluff.

Many gardens have built plots accessible to the disabled, using raised beds and making sure that paths are smooth and easy to negotiate. At the Interbay site, Mary Sexton gardens from her wheelchair with the help of her companion dog Mimi and fellow gardeners. Interbay, although not the largest site, has a strong core of gardeners who have organized compost demonstrations, hold potlucks, and invite other P-Patchers to their annual salmon bake. Interbay gardeners, who began the site in 1974 on the clay cap of a landfill, have learned to roll with the punches. After years of speculation on what the city might do with the land, the entire site had to be relocated to the south to make room for a driving range for golfers.

Interbay P-Patch offers composting classes for Seattle residents

Interbay P-Patch offers composting classes for Seattle residents

A Common Bond

Even though diverse in character and characters, the common bond among all the sites is the will to grow food, to have something fresh and organic; to serve a salad and know where it’s been grown. As any gardener will attest, growing a few tomato plants can give you an extra bit of confidence and a take-charge attitude toward life.

At the Ballard site, Vincent and Biefke Vos Saulino took over an abandoned plot in June of this year. Often gardeners with good intentions are unable to fulfill their dreams of a bountiful growing season, and when that happens, lucky gardeners on the waiting list can dive in and take control. Many sites have waiting lists of dozens of people, and in some popular sites, such as the Queen Anne neighborhood garden, the wait for a plot can be two or three years.

Recovered plots often come with their own baggage. “We’ve been here every day for a week,” says Biefke, as Vincent took up watering the newly planted peppers. “We hauled out eight wheelbarrows of weeds.” The Saulinos, recently retired, look forward to the harvest from their ten-by-twenty-foot plot. “We only had room to grow a tomato at home,” says Biefke, “and that never did much.” The couple are discovering that with the new garden comes a firmer involvement with the communit, and there is always someone with whom they can discuss the finer points of tomato cages.

Most sites offer gardeners a 100- or 200-square-foot plot, although it’s sometimes possible to get more than one plot. In years past, there were many gardens that were not gardened year-round. Early each spring, sites could arrange to have their entire area mechanically tilled to start the new growing season. But gardeners became savvy to the extended growing season in the Pacific Northwest. More and more of them wanted to take advantage of winter crops of kale and leeks, and to be able to put in a fall crop of lettuce with a March salad in mind. Now, most sites are productive year-round.

An abundance of produce at Interbay P-Patch, some to be shared with the needy through Lettuce Link

An abundance of produce at Interbay P-Patch, some to be shared with the needy through Lettuce Link

An Abundance of Produce

Even small plots often yield an abundance of produce. Gardeners plan for one row of lettuce, but decide that two rows would be better. The hunger for a really tasty tomato sometimes means that two or three extra plants are tucked into the patch, resulting in a daily bowlful of ripe fruit in August. And even one zucchini plant can be too much for a two-person household.

In the community tradition of the P-Patch, one gardener’s excess is another’s dinner. The P-Patch Program, therefore, is the main source of food for Lettuce Link, a food-collection program run by the Fremont Public Association in Seattle. “I’m the link between P-Patch and the food banks,” says Lee Harper, coordinator of the program. “I have three volunteer drivers that pick up produce three days a week from Picardo and Interbay. We get 15,000 pounds of food a year from P-Patch.”

Much of the volunteer time and extra support in fundraising comes from the non-profit group Friends of P-Patch. The Friends have started another group, along with the Seattle Housing Authority, called Cultivating Communities, which promotes youth gardens, community-supported agriculture (also called subscription farming), and gardening plots in public housing areas. The Seattle P-Patch Program is also involved in the American Community Gardening Association, a network of organizations promoting the cause.

In the city, vacant lots are hard to come by, but that doesn’t stop the program from seeking, and often finding, new sites. Minimum requirements, such as level terrain and a size large enough to include one plot for the food bank, sometimes must be waved in order to acquire a small space before it gets gobbled up by a new building or parking lot. It’s the unspoken mission of the P-Patch program: to fill vacant lots with zucchini and corn, rather than concrete and steel.