A cluster of tomatoes in Gene and Joyce Cavanaugh’s garden in the Willowgates Community Garden, in Mountain View. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Locals brave secret alleyways, stolen locks and seven-year waitlists for these high-demand garden plots.

In a quietly gentrifying neighborhood a mile from Facebook’s headquarters, where property values are soaring under the watchful eye of developers, there’s an untouchable quarter-acre lot being rented for $1 per year. Not visible from the street, the city-owned parcel was a notorious hiding spot for stolen cars and late-night aerobic escapades until four years ago, when the city agreed to rent the land to Glen Rojas and Joanna Jones of the Menlo Park Rotary Club. At the request of locals, they cleared the debris, consulted agricultural experts and created the Belle Haven Community Garden, turning suburban blight into a vibrant gathering place.

If you know where to look, you’ll find similar community gardens across the Midpeninsula — hidden down narrow alleyways, beyond gates at the end of dead-end roads, even camouflaged into local parks. They span acres of prime real estate with no angle for profit. Instead, the gardens are divided into dozens of plots, each rented to an individual or family for a nominal fee (or sometimes for free). Plot holders take full responsibility for the soil and reap all the fruits of their labor, most often motivated by the simple love of gardening. It takes perseverance to find the gardens, brave the waitlists (some as long as seven years) and harvest the crops, but most locals who manage to make it in never want to leave.

A garden variety bounty at the Rinconada Community Garden: (clockwise from top left) lavender, a sunflower, cherry tomatoes and leafy greens (cabbages and lettuce). (Photos by Veronica Weber)

Despite the massive size of the unused open space, when Rojas — the former City Manager of Menlo Park — first heard about the empty piece of land in Belle Haven he couldn’t find it. A maintenance worker had to drive him to an unmarked alleyway sandwiched between two homes and walk him back to the overgrown lot that was far larger than Rojas could have imagined. “Very seldom can you find land this big,” he said. “We still don’t know why there’s so much space.” After the garbage, old couches and heavy undergrowth had been cleared away, they sectioned off 37 individual plots, and though they’re small by community garden standards (just 4 x 8 feet), the gardeners make good use of their space.

Menlo Park resident Andre Berro is just happy to have a place to continue his family’s farming tradition. “My father had a vineyard in Lebanon,” he said, his farming childhood a common theme among community gardeners. Now working in public health, Berro lives in a condo with no outdoor space to grow food. He immediately signed up for a plot at the Belle Haven garden when it opened four years ago, and today his plot is overflowing with tomatoes, mint and rosemary — a flourishing oasis immune to the bustle of Silicon Valley. “I could be exhausted at work, and if I come during the week it’s truly soothing,” he said. He especially loves to bring along his five-year-old daughter, who helps him garden with her own shovel and rake. Nibbling on fresh thyme and cherry tomatoes while they work is good for both of them, he said: “You can see it on her. When she goes back home she’s more refreshed.”

Clockwise from top left: Tomatoes, basil, and lemon cucumbers harvested from the Rinconada Community Garden; Zeke Maples, 11, shows mom Stephanie Maples an earthworm he found in their vegetable garden; beans; Stephanie Maples adds mulch to the pathway beside the garden plot her family rents at the Rinconada Community Garden and is joined by sons Zeke, 11, far left, Caleb, 9, left, and Judah, 13, center, as they work in the garden on August 6, 2019. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

At Palo Alto’s Rinconada Community Garden, local teacher (and garden plot holder) Stephanie Maples brings her kids, too. “Sometimes they’ll bring their water guns and they’ll play tag,” said Maples, whose backyard — shaded by Palo Alto’s infamous canopy of trees — doesn’t get enough sun for gardening. She discovered the Rinconada garden by accident last year because, unlike the Belle Haven garden, it’s open to the public. Not all the plot holders are comfortable with non-gardeners having full access to the plots they work hard to maintain, so Community Garden Coordinator Catherine Bourquin recently headed a pilot program to keep the general public out of Rinconada. “It didn’t work very well,” she laughed. “All the locks I bought kept disappearing.” With artists from the neighboring Art Center walking over to paint the foliage and children visiting to count monarch butterflies with their school classes, the community and about half of the gardeners argued that the public posed less of a threat than the squirrels, and ultimately Bourquin stopped replacing the missing locks.

Everyone is now welcome to visit the garden, but only locals can rent the plots. “You have to be a Palo Alto resident to have a plot in our community gardens,” said Bourquin. “We have a lot of people from other cities wanting to get a [plot].”

Some of those people are likely from Mountain View, where the waitlist for a plot at the Willowgate Community Garden has averaged 5–7 years. The legendary wait became so prohibitive that the city agreed to build a new garden near the city center and poured resources into the community spot. “It’s almost a million-dollar garden,” said Recreation Coordinator Tiffanie Lai. Finally nearing completion, the new Latham Community Garden has emptied Willowgate’s original waitlist, with all 84 residents — some waiting since 2014 — being assigned plots.

Clockwise from top left: Joyce Cavanaugh waters her plants in the Willowgates Community Garden in Mountain View on Aug. 7, 2019; Onions left out to dry by Joyce Cavanaugh at the Willowgate Community Gardens in Mountain View; Joyce Cavanaugh holds the green beans she has picked at the Willowgate Community Gardens; Joyce Cavanaugh tends to her tomato plant in the Willowgate Community Gardens. (Photos by Magali Gauthier)

Retired electrical engineer Bill Zuravleff is all too familiar with the patience required to get into a garden. “It took me a long time to get that plot — like six years,” he said, remembering his time on the waitlist. He’s been at Willowgate for 10 years now, and although he grows the traditional raspberries, tomatoes and cucumbers, it’s his hops plant that towers above all else. “This is the fifth year I’m brewing the Willowgate Pale Ale,” he said. A veteran home brewer, Zuravleff picks fresh hops from his plot and brings them straight home, brewing the beer the same day.

For fresh, local ingredients, no organic label or farmers’ market can compete with community gardens, so when Zuravleff and other residents finally make it off the waitlist, they can hang on to their plots for decades. That limited turnover makes it difficult to meet community needs. Even Latham, which emptied Mountain View’s old waitlist, can’t keep pace with demand. A new wait list has grown over just the last two months, now with an expected wait time of three years. Mountain View’s Recreation Supervisor Shaun Chilkotowsky points to the influx of housing as a source of the growing demand: “My assumption is — with all the new development that you see — it’s all high density, so people aren’t getting backyards.”

From left: Joyce Cavanaugh waters her plants in the Willowgate Community Gardens in Mountain View; Brothers Zeke, 11, and Caleb, 9, play in a wheelbarrow while working in their family’s garden plot at the Rinconada Community Garden on August 6, 2019; Stephanie Maples picks blackberries growing at the garden plot she rents at the Rinconada Community Garden. (Photos by Veronica Weber & Magali Gauthier)

The limited space and long waits mean that, in general, only truly devoted gardeners end up with plots. “This is an extension of their homes,” said Mountain View Recreation Coordinator Colin James, “so that’s why they are here a good amount of the time.” The gardeners at Willowgate have organized tomato tastings, barbecues and crop shares. They share advice via a Google group and pool their extra food (more than 500 pounds so far) to donate to the local food pantry — Community Services Agency, located just down the street. “About half of our stuff goes to the food bank,” said Gene Cavanaugh, who has been gardening at Willowgate for 15 years and walks to the food bank with his wife Joyce two or three times a week to deliver the garden’s donations.

At the Belle Haven garden in Menlo Park, plots are smaller, so Rojas sees more sharing between gardeners than he does donation to food banks. He seems proud of how the garden has matured, but he envisions even more: “We want to put a couple picnic tables in here; at some point we may think about [having] some barbecue pits. . . We’re trying to make it more of a community gathering place.” Like the plots themselves, as each season goes by, local community gardens are changing bit by bit. “A garden is sort of always an incomplete project,” said Maples, the teacher from Palo Alto. “It’s always becoming something, and something is always growing and something is dying off . . . it’s ever evolving.”

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