San Francisco’s victory gardens project grows a community


Judy Shannon wasn’t sure how to pick lettuce. She worried that snipping thyme would kill the plant. It was, after all, her first harvest.

With trepidation, she filled a plastic bag with enough for a salad for herself and her husband, then held it up in triumph -- one success of the Victory Gardens 2008-Plus project. The city-funded effort in San Francisco also included the planting of one-third of an acre in the plaza outside City Hall, where 4,000 plants yielded hundreds of pounds of food for shelters.

“In the beginning I didn’t want to call it Victory Garden,” said Amy Franceschini, an artist and teacher who founded the project, first as a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit, then as a city program in private yards. Franceschini’s worries about the phrase’s wartime origins were justified when a local official offered praise, remarking that the gardens could help keep Americans safe from the Taliban.


But over time she came to see the phrase in another context, as “a victory of self-reliance, independence from the industrial food system, community involvement.” And, she said, the term galvanized people of all kinds.

“If people can afford good food, that is a victory,” Franceschini said.

Victory Gardens 2008-Plus is a program of Garden for the Environment, an 18-year-old city demonstration garden, and San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, which provided $60,000. Department of the Environment Environment department director Jared Blumenfeld called the Civic Center garden a symbol of land used to “fill a lot of environmental and social objectives and show that people could get excited about it.”

That symbol was dismantled in late fall. It’s the home gardens that were meant to make a permanent change. Through a Craigslist ad, Franceschini solicited participants. Within a day, 800 people had responded. Eighteen pilot gardens were planted. The locations were diverse, as were the gardeners and their needs. A team built raised beds, recommended plants and taught residents how to care for gardens.

Hanzhang Lin, who came to the United States a year ago from China, said that after Victory Gardens 2008-Plus put in a couple of raised beds in his backyard, he went to town. With his 12-year-old granddaughter translating, he said he added a makeshift greenhouse, built two compost bins from discarded window blind slats and planted bok choi. He has peas, figs, herbs, tomatoes and strawberries too.

Shannon’s garden in the Excelsior neighborhood is a redwood box the size of a coffee table, perched on legs to accommodate her wheelchair. Drip irrigation tubes are on a timer. The garden has inspired her to make the difficult trip outside more often. “I call it God’s little acre -- a special box of hope,” she said.


Garden for the Environment also works with schools and offers lessons on composting and other practices, director Blair Randall said. Planting a garden provides food and flowers, of course, but also exercise and community building. “There are inherent good things to come from gardening,” he said, “more than just the amount of food it can put on your plate.”