Standing deep in the International Garden of Many Colors, the crackling of power lines overhead and the sound of cars going by on Garden Highway are the only indications that you’re in the city.
Fruit trees, twining vines and towering tomato plants block out the view of apartments on either side of the narrow piece of city land long occupied by an unofficial community garden. Bed frames, rubber piping and makeshift wooden fencing divide the plots into roughly 40 individual gardens.
Eastern European, Asian and Hispanic immigrant farmers living in the adjacent Mutual Housing at River Garden low-income complex have been growing food on the land for decades, but city officials recently told them they have to move.
Councilman Jeff Harris, who represents the area, said there are safety issues stemming from the organic way the garden developed over time. The paths are uneven and not accessible for people with disabilities. The metal and other materials used to divide the plots could be a fire hazard or dangerous for gardeners and visitors, he said. Standing water in buckets for future use can serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes. City officials said the garden violates a SMUD easement on the property.
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City officials would like some of the gardeners to move into about 20 open spots at a more traditional community garden directly north of the International Garden of Many Colors, surrounded by a shiny chain-link fence with precise, equally-portioned raised beds.
The gardeners would be subject to the same rules and regulations of other city-sanctioned gardens, such as restrictions on the height of plants and trellis-like structures.
There are not enough spots for all of the current gardeners to have plots in the new garden. City officials said the new garden might be able to expand north to make room for all of the gardeners.
City officials plan to clear the land after December, giving the gardeners time to collect their last harvest, according to a letter sent to a representative at Mutual Housing, which runs the apartment complex where most of the gardeners live.
Longtime gardener Ellen Goranov said the farmers don’t understand why they have to move. They feel they’ve been unofficially sanctioned for decades and question why things are changing now. Many feel a deep sense of attachment to the land and plants they’ve tended for a long time, and Goranov said the gardens bring comfort to the older immigrants in the complex who don’t get outside much and suffer from poor mental health.
“(America is) a very stressed, fast-paced society,” she said. “When you go to the garden, you forget about all these problems and you work the soil, physical exercise. You come down, you have rest. You observe beauty. You rejoice in the first flowers, first fruits when they begin to ripen, you enjoy it. And the joy of giving, to share with someone.”
Originally from Russia and in her 50s, Goranov said she began gardening in the International Garden of Many Colors shortly after she moved into the River Gardens complex in 1995. Some of the plots existed when she arrived.
She said farmers have shared seeds, knowledge and supplies. Throughout the maze of gardens, there are neat piles of wood scraps ready for whoever needs stakes. Right now, Goranov is offering some of her strawberry plants to other farmers because she has too many.
“People were feeding their family,” Goranov said. “If they have extras, they share with neighbors. Nobody was selling anything.”
She said there haven’t been problems with fire or ungrounded metal under the power lines. Gardeners can make accommodations for people with disabilities, such as a woman in a wheelchair who wanted to do some planting. She was given a small plot near the entrance and the paths to her garden were widened and made safe for her wheelchair, Goranov said.
Though the garden has existed since the early 1990s, it’s been allowed to operate in a gray area. Harris said the garden got some sort of approval when Heather Fargo was mayor, but no official actions were taken. Years ago, Mutual Housing installed piping and faucets to bring water to the garden, which Goranov said indicated some sort of official approval.
“We were allowed,” Goranov said. “People who don’t speak English will never go anywhere they’re not allowed because they don’t know, they are afraid.”
Mutual Housing declined to comment on the situation. The gardens originally blossomed around the bases of transmission line towers owned by Western Area Power Administration and SMUD, but several years ago about 10 of the plots were cleared to make space for maintenance workers, Goranov said.
Harris said the city has been working with the gardeners for several years to resolve the safety concerns.
Many of the gardeners also do not speak English. Harris said he plans to meet with community organizers and the gardeners to try to smooth the transition. Other than a potential second garden, the city is considering planting more fruit trees to create an orchard, he said.
“It’s been a difficult discussion because people are resistant to change,” Harris said.