Garden of Eden – Mesa church plans to turn small plot of land into community bounty

Randy Saake, deacon at Holy Cross Catholic Church, admires a freshly planted tree on Sunday at Mesa Harmony Garden, off Meigs Road, which will help feed those in need in the community. NIK BLASKOVICH / NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
Randy Saake, deacon at Holy Cross Catholic Church, admires a freshly planted tree on Sunday at Mesa Harmony Garden, off Meigs Road, which will help feed those in need in the community.
NIK BLASKOVICH / NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

Most people drive past the beginnings of the Mesa Harmony Garden on their way down or up Meigs Road, either on their way to Santa Barbara or the Mesa. A small patch of land behind the Taco Bell parking lot and before the turnoff onto Dolores Drive, it is set to become several things: a way to feed those in need, an exciting example of permaculture and a gift from a local church to the Mesa community

The garden, worked by parishioners of Holy Cross Catholic Church, neighbors, Santa Barbara City College students and volunteers, will provide food for the homeless and needy from a selection of more than 300 trees, along with other types of fruits and vegetables, say supporters. And all on less than an acre.

Happy to help out, Ellamae McKinney, 3, digs a hole where a tree will be planted at Mesa Harmony Garden.
Happy to help out, Ellamae McKinney, 3, digs a hole where a tree will be planted at Mesa Harmony Garden.
Local volunteer Margie Bushman hauls a wheelbarrow full of mulch across the garden.
Local volunteer Margie Bushman hauls a wheelbarrow full of mulch across the garden.
At top, Volunteers from the church and community turned out Sunday to dig holes, haul mulch and plant trees at Mesa Harmony Garden. Randy Saake backfills around a tree as Larry Saltzman, member of the Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara, lays the roots out.
At top, Volunteers from the church and community turned out Sunday to dig holes, haul mulch and plant trees at Mesa Harmony Garden.
Randy Saake backfills around a tree as Larry Saltzman, member of the Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara, lays the roots out.
Randy Saake has been an ordained deacon at Holy Cross for three years and a member for 14 years. The half-acre of land has been sitting there vacant for the entire 50 years of the church’s existence, he says.

The church’s Father Ludo DeClippel had been mulling over what to do with the land for a long time. Five years ago, he decided to finally do something about it and sent out a letter to parishioners asking for ideas. The ideas came back: a garden, meditation grounds and more. However, everything looked like it might cost too much money, so the idea fell through the cracks.

About five years ago, City College approached with the idea of a community garden, where vegetables and fruit would grow, similar to other gardens on the Eastside and Westside. The parishioners ran with the idea and began on a small strip of land nearby, closer to the parking lot, which was more manageable. For the parishioners, many of whom live in apartments with no land, this was a chance to grow their own food. Twenty-two plots wound up in the sliver of land, and for two seasons, it has been bountiful.

Then City College returned for a further appeal to the parishioners: Would they be interested in developing the larger plot of land? The college introduced them to Larry Saltzman, member of the Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara who takes part in several similar projects around town.

Once Thomas Curry, regional bishop of Santa Barbara, gave his blessing in January, and the church applied for a nonprofit status for the garden, the garden set up its board of directors, with Josh Kane, a member of the Mesa business community, as president, Renatte Franquet as vice president, and Mr. Saake as treasurer.

The Mesa garden is its own entity, but its mission statement fits right in with the good deeds of the church. All food will be donated to Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, which kick-started the garden with a recent donation of 78 fruit trees. “We planned on giving them the fruit anyway,” Mr. Saake says, “so it was a win-win situation.”

As of Sunday, parishioners and volunteers began to plant those trees. The plan, after initial planting and irrigation, is to end with a self-sustainable food forest. No municipal water or manpower will be needed, except for maintenance and harvesting.

“Our goal is to have 300 (trees) planted in this teeny plot of land,” Mr. Saake says. “I find that hard to believe, but the guys in the know say it’s possible.”

Permaculturists — the people in the know — suggest a seven-layer garden, in which all seven kinds of plant life interact with each other. It’s the complete opposite of the monoculture seen in farmland, where one type of plant gets its own field.

The top layer belongs to canopy trees, large fruit and nut trees that provide shade for the rest of the forest. The second layer is made of smaller trees, dwarf fruit trees, all producing fruit such as citrus and peaches. Below that is the shrub layer, producing berries and currants. After that comes the layers most people associate with a garden: herbaceous plants such as beets and lettuce; root vegetables like potatoes and carrots; and then groundcover, which can produce strawberries and more. The final layer is the vertical creepers: vines and such, producing beans, melons, squash and more.

“The plants survive off each other and perpetuate each other’s growth,” says Mr. Saake.

So far, the list of trees includes five varieties of peach, two kinds of plum, nectarines and apricots. Add to that several varieties of apple and pear. Down in the corner they plan to have bananas, Mr. Saake adds.

Bananas on the Mesa? Really?

Larry Saltzman, who has been advising the garden, plans to plant banana trees in a circle, with a little compost in the middle. “They’re nutrient-hungry, so they live off that,” Mr. Saake explains. That’s also the reason the bananas get planted at the bottom of the hill. Terracing helps the flow of water and nutrients.

Parishioners have been getting a quick education in permaculture, but so have City College students. Jan Cross, who has gone back to college after decades in the corporate world, came as part of a class in the environmental studies program — a semester-long project in sustainability, taught by Adam Green — where Mesa Harmony Garden was one of several options.

“Since I moved here several years ago, I realized we have a special environment that allows certain things to grow together,” Ms. Cross says. “The environmental stuff is what is going to make a difference to us in the future. And it allows all kinds of people to work together toward a goal. It creates more harmony, food, and a better environment.”

“She’s the real motivator in the group,” says Mr. Saake of Ms. Cross. “She brings out the help.”

The Mesa doesn’t get too warm or cold, according to Mr. Saltzman, which makes it ideal for apples, stone fruit and, believe it or not, papayas and mangoes. “They like the additional moisture. You don’t get a winter freeze on the Mesa,” he told the News-Press.

“It’s challenging, too; you really have to work with the peaches. It’s not the perfect place to grow, but you can work there. But if we make mistakes, we can rectify them.”

When they started, the earth was not forgiving. The clay ground, used in adobe bricks, was hard. They had to use picks on it. Then the rains came. “We’ve been digging deeper and it’s still hard,” said Ms. Cross. But the permaculture people know the right nitrogen blend and fungal growth to get the soil aerated. “We’re talking about starting with concrete here.”

To the untrained eye, such successful gardens look like chaos, but to the environmental scientist and permaculturalist, these forest gardens are a complex system. Scientists now theorize that the rainforest in South America was not wild but a staggeringly huge forest garden planted and tended by the Mayan civilization. It was just not a garden to the eyes of the European explorers who landed there.

Mr. Saltzman has tended his own miniature version of a food forest for 18 years at his Samarkand home. He brought the students and parishioners out to his quarter of an acre, which has more than 80 trees. “It was incredible to see,” says Mr. Saake. “We got very excited about it.”

“Take a tree that produces 25 pounds of fruit and multiply that by 100 and you see how that can quickly become a lot,” Mr. Saltzman says. “We’re pushing 1,000 pounds of fruit on that property.”

Mr. Saltzman adds that adding chicken, ducks or bees increases diversity and nutrients.

“A food forest is the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen,” says an enthusiastic Ms. Cross. “If you do a good job, you don’t have to redo it all the time. It makes the ground, the insects, the birds, and the people happy. It’s really a harmonious thing.”

Those interested in the garden can go to mesaharmonygarden.org for more information, including a map of the area and a project plan. Organizers are still looking for donations, volunteers and equipment.

“We are being good stewards of the earth,” says Mr. Saake, explaining why the church is following this gardening path. “God gifted us the earth to look after.”

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