Article taken from the Salinas Californian March 7, 2013
Along Soledad Street in the Chinatown neighborhood there is a plot of land, 2,500 square feet of serenity amid bitter misfortune, as different from the street as green is to gray. It’s known simply as “the garden” throughout the neighborhood.
“I knew what [Soledad Street] was about. I was born in this valley. This was the spot to come if you wanted drugs or anything. You name it, it was here,” said Javier Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the Chinatown Community Garden Steward and works for AmeriCorps Volunteer Infrastructure Program (VIP) in the garden at the north end of Soledad Street where it meets East Lake Street.
“I’ve seen a really, really big improvement,” Rodriguez said. “Now I see children coming to the garden. I bring my own daughter to the garden. The people on the street take care of the garden. They guard the garden, they don’t let anything bad come into the garden.
“A lot of that is the fact that they know the garden and CSUMB and everything we’re doing is bringing a positive light to the area. It’s bringing positive energy . They want to take care of it, because without this, it’s going to revert back to what it was.”
Since 2008 his zeal and self-taught agriculture and horticulture expertise — “By osmosis you could say,” Rodriguez said — have nurtured growth and vitality in a section of Salinas where most things appear wilted and broken. One one side of the garden’s perimeter green shrubs and vine-covered metal fence are bleak views of street life; on the other are orange poppies, roses and hummingbirds.
Rodriguez started working in the garden as a volunteer, then accepted a series of part-time jobs that eventually grew into full-time employment as keeper of the one, quietly determined sliver of hope and beauty on the block.
“At one point this was an open parking lot, it was dumping ground, it was an outdoor toilet,” he said. “The positive energy of all the (California State University, Monterey Bay) students coming in, the volunteers that come in on a regular basis, faces changing, all the schools coming into the area and helping out at Dorothy’s [soup kitchen] — just this positive atmosphere that constantly people bring — changed the street.”
Homeless people still congregate on the sidewalks. Cars slowly cruise up the street, stop, and wait for someone on the sidewalk to step up and hand something into the vehicle before rapidly driving off.
But Rodriguez takes note of Soledad Street life not immediately recognized by others.
“I can see the difference because I’ve been here,” he said. “I see it during the winter when we have not that many volunteers. It kind of starts dying down (the garden). That’s when the bad elements start coming back. The worst thing that’s happened here, in the garden, is we had a break-in recently and they stole a wood chipper that was going to help us maintain the garden. It’s a revenue-driver to keep the garden maintained after the grant money runs out.”
Rodriguez’s daily routine starts in the morning when he opens the locked gate to the garden, then determines the garden’s needs for the day. He coordinates the activities of 15 service learning students from CSUMB and three workers from the CalWORKS program. His day includes weeding, watering and managing a variety of projects designed to sustain the existence of the garden.
“Currently we’re working with the solid waste authority teaching classes on composting,” he said. “We’re teaching people in the Salinas Valley, anywhere from King City to Prunedale. They’re open classes, they’re free and taught by a master composter.”
Rodriguez tends from 50 to 75 different organisms growing around the fenced oasis. He knows the plants’ needs and individual personalities as intimately as if they were his own children. He said last year the garden delivered over half a ton of produce — broccoli, potatoes, pinto beans, artichokes, herbs of all kind, mustard, dinosaur kale, Russian kale, Greek oregano, mint, garlic chives, savory, cabbage, onions, lettuce, spinach, corn, peas and squash.
“A little bit of everything,” he said. “I want to find out how to plant a T-bone steak plant or a filet mignon plant. If I could figure that out, I could plant a money tree.”
Rodriguez said all the food produced in the gardens went into the hands of the homeless and some to Dorothy’s Place. Privately adopted plots within the garden also donated to Dorothy’s.
Each plot in the garden is available for adoption, a program Rodriguez initiated four years ago. All that is asked is two hours of time per month donated to the collective maintenance of the garden. For that, Rodriguez supplies all seeds, tools, compost and agricultural assistance needed.
Each plot has a name, such as Duchess or Freckles, in order to keep track of what is growing in each. Plots can be and are individually decorated, but the name must remain the same. Rodriguez said if someone feels they cannot devote the time needed to maintain a plot, then there are wooden half-barrels available to plant flowers.
A central task for the garden is to become self-sustaining. To that end Rodriguez has a variety of projects underway. The garden’s gazebo will soon be outfitted with four, 740-watt solar panels to supply electricity.
He has created a passive solar water heater on the roof of the shed that, he said, reaches 130 degrees on a good day. He’s developing a gray water system. Along with providing food for the body, he’s now creating nourishment for the soul.
“We’ll be doing an open mike night on the next full moon (March 27), and on all full moons for summer,” Rodriguez said.
This first full moon get-together will be the garden’s inaugural open mike night. Anyone is welcome to tell jokes, sing, play a musical instrument or recite poetry. Rodriguez said organizers will offer tea.
Any proceeds made will go to La Perla coffee shop and art gallery on Soledad Street just down the block from the garden. A future project on the drawing board is an earthen pizza oven.
“Right now it’s in concept,” Rodriguez said.
If he can replace the stolen wood chipper, he plans to develop vermiculture (a system of composting using worms) to sell at farmers markets. Rodriguez hopes this will sustain the gardens and pay his wages when the grant money fades away in the next year.