Auto shops crowd the corner of University Avenue and 39th Street in City Heights, two blocks from Interstate 15. Down the alley behind Valvoline Instant Oil Change, past densely-packed apartments and the wide asphalt lot of Standard Plumbing and Industrial Supply, is an unexpected sight. Green plants grow riotous, pushing through the gaps in a chain-link fence.
A hand-painted sign reads: “The Revolutionary Grower’s Garden.” A breeze clinks another sign against the fence: “Everyone’s welcome here.”
The plumbing store owners lend the lot — once empty and overgrown with weeds — to the Black Panther Party of San Diego. Over the past six years, volunteer gardeners coaxed life from nearly every inch. The caretakers now squeeze between tightly-packed beds and towers of pots as they work together to tend them.
Now, in October, the kale is going strong. Potatoes are sprouting. Flowers and squash, different kinds of peppers, eggplants and herbs spring from the same beds together.
It’s one of many ways the garden differs from large-scale agriculture, which usually grows one crop on vast tracts of land, depleting the soil of nutrients.
On the surface, they are watering, creating compost from their food scraps, seeding and harvesting. Whether volunteers know it or not, they are also making the neighborhood more resilient to climate change, which is expected to overburden lower-income communities of color like City Heights.
They call it a teaching garden. The group works together to share the labor of tending to it and the knowledge needed. Volunteers can — and often do — walk in knowing nothing about growing food. Eventually, they learn enough to teach others.
The food, they said, tastes better than grocery store produce. It doesn’t travel by truck or sit in a refrigerator. Often, it’s straight from the ground to their mouths.
“We had, like, watermelon growing,” said gardener Dayze Dream, who is non-binary and chose that name. Their voice grew excited remembering one piece of fruit. “We cut it open. We were so excited. We shared it with everyone. We just, like, slurped that up, and it was so good!”
The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates large-scale food production creates a quarter of global carbon emissions.
These gardeners, in contrast, are healing this small plot with their choices.
They avoid tilling, which releases carbon into the atmosphere.
In the compost bin, cereal boxes, newspapers and food scraps decompose. Half a dozen gardeners spear shovels into the mixture to break it down, making smelly but quick work. They turn their trash into a replacement for synthetic fertilizer.
They make natural insect repellants — mixing castile soap, water and neem oil — instead of using synthetic pesticides.
And the produce eases their reliance on grocery stores.
Fiel is another gardener and a Black Panther Party member. KPBS is only using party members’ chosen names in this story because they’re concerned about being targeted by law enforcement.
She said knowing how to grow your own food is vital for neighborhoods like City Heights.
She can get a couple weeks worth of produce for herself and her fiancé from one harvest, she said, saving her money at the grocery store.
When there’s more than they can take home, the gardeners knock on neighbors’ doors and share.
Fiel sees learning how to garden as “protecting your right to have a healthy diet.”
“As climate change progresses,” she said, “fruits and vegetables are going to become more expensive because especially in California and Southern California, they need more water. And we’re just not going to have it.”
The garden builds the neighborhood’s resilience to climate change in other ways, too.
The plants absorb sun, helping lower temperatures that are commonly higher in lower-income communities of color that have fewer trees and more asphalt.
Unlike asphalt, the soil retains water and reduces runoff. Which may become increasingly necessary as San Diego experiences unusually heavy rains.
And, Fiel said, working together in a garden helps build trust between neighbors.
“If you’re constantly feeling like you’re in competition with your neighbors,” she said, “or you have to defend yourself against people who live down the street from you, it doesn’t enhance your quality of life.”
Though it’s not their primary reason for growing the garden, the climate crisis is on gardeners’ minds.
Fiel noticed it in the high temperatures in San Diego this summer.
She said they’ve had to ask the plumbing store owners — who give them water — for more than anticipated this year.
Coyote — another party member — sees climate change in the unpredictability of the garden.
“There’s less, kind of, stability, and I think that’s what you notice the most,” he said. “I can’t ever be like, ‘Well, last year in January this happened.’ It’s like, well, every January is a new January.”
Of course, this one garden won’t fix the climate crisis, he said.
“This is one small part,” he said. “But it is a small part that you can engage in.”
Coyote sees climate change as linked to colonizers.
“The superiority that they used to justify their actions disrupted huge ecosystems,” he said. “People here for thousands of years knew how to take care of their earth. And when they weren’t thinking about it just as a means to exploit, but as a relationship that they engage in actively, it was much healthier for everyone involved.”
The gardeners trade knowledge from their countries of origin and cultures, and practice indigenous traditions. When the season was right, they grew a Three Sisters bed of corn, beans and squash — one of many indigenous practices that is healing to soil and beneficial for plants. The beans fix nitrogen to the soil, corn provides structure for plants to climb and squash provides protection against other plants.
“This garden has absolutely transformed my relationship with the earth in, like, the most beautiful way,” Dream said.
Fiel said gardening has changed how the volunteers relate to nature.
“Even though we have some really huge spiders and they’re really scary, they’re also very important to the garden,” she said. “So you have to leave them alone and let them do their thing. So it teaches a lot of respect.”
They imagine this knowledge spreading.
“Like it would be so beautiful if we had this garden not just in every city, but on every block, to feed the community in that block,” Dream said. “And if we all have that information to know how to grow, then it can liberate us in so many ways.”
The gardeners invite anyone to come learn how to plant seeds and grow change on their own block.