I never knew the garden of my youth was called the St. Francis Community Garden until recently. Few people know about it or remember it, but it was a part of the fabric of midtown Sacramento long before anyone had ever uttered the phrase “farm-to-fork.”
Many remember the old Mandella garden that was shut down with some controversy in the late 2000s. Though the St. Francis Community Garden existed at roughly the same time, in contrast its birth and death were somewhat quiet affairs.
The “big garden” as my family called it, was located on I street, between 25th and 26th streets from 1975 to about 1997. The picture at the top of the post is my sister at about 16 months old, racing over the garden’s many paths through the plots.
My siblings and I grew up in that garden. Along with the backyard gardens of my grandparents and my own childhood home, the big garden was where my love of digging in the dirt really began to take root. And yes, that was a garden pun.
The St. Francis Community Garden was founded by my father, Gene Domek, along with former SMUD Board member Rick Castro. My dad was a teacher at St. Francis Elementary at that time, and had the idea that his students would enjoy growing vegetables and plants and could learn science at the same time. Mr. Castro had the idea that the kids could partner with senior citizens to grow food together. The entire garden was supposed to be a one-year experiment in growing food. According to my Pops, the landowner, the late Gil Schwarz, was a good guy who let them utilize the land for free, with the understanding that when he ultimately decided to develop the land, the gardeners would vacate the premises.
But at the end of the year, the landowner still had no plans to develop or sell. So gardeners kept gardening. After that, St. Francis students would come over during various class periods or after school to work on their plots, and the garden blossomed into something amazing. And yes, that was another garden pun.
In today’s water conscious environment, “borrowing” water from the neighboring apartments would be a bit of a no-no. And maybe it was in the ’70s too, but tomatoes needed water so borrow they did. Eventually it had hose bibs at strategic locations throughout the garden and gardeners could irrigate more effectively.
The St. Francis students were involved up until around 1979 or 1980 when my Dad got a job teaching at Christian Brothers High School, and it became a bit more like a traditional community garden where anyone could get a plot if one opened up. People shared their excess produce (cough, zucchini, cough), and local food was a practical reality rather than a movement.
At this point, the garden became the place that I knew and loved. The plots were huge by today’s community garden standards–roughly 15 x 30 feet–and there was room to grow everything a gardener might want to grow, and then some. My dad, being the guy who was running it, actually had two plots. One of them was ostensibly my grandfather’s plot, but after he got cancer, my Dad took it over. In that plot, I saw my first ever bean tepee. The picture below is a record to the glory of the bean tepees of my childhood.
It was enormous, and all of us kids could fit inside.
In my own garden as an adult, I attempted bean tepees of my own, but they somehow never matched the grandeur of my dad’s original structures. Year after year, I’d search for poles long enough to replicate the design, but would come up short and I finally asked dear ol’ dad how he was able to make such huge forts for us to play in and he indicated that he simply tied two poles together. That solution falls well into the category of “Duh” and I’m a little bit ashamed that I couldn’t figure it out. Words good. Easily solvable engineering tasks hard…
For a kid, it was really cool. There was always a wood chip mountain to climb and fight one’s little brother upon. Or a communal compost pile to jump in. Thinking about that now I am a little bit disgusted that I ever thought it was a good idea to jump in a compost pile. No wonder my mom insisted I bathe frequently.
I saw my dad’s experiments in how to grow potatoes, gradually extending the height of their containers with pieces of wood and filling it up with compost and straw. I ate tomatoes off the vine. In fact, I’m not sure I ever had a tomato from a store until I was school age.
There were always interesting characters who didn’t mind an irritating boy with a high pitched voice talking to them while they gardened. One guy spoke only Italian; another was a kindly old man with a black beret and a pipe; and another who always wore a cowboy hat and was never doing much work, but was always relaxing in the shade. And Armand, who was hit and killed by a car. Afterward, his garden stood weedy until eventually, the promise of an empty plot led another gardener to claim it.
And then there was Peter, a Hungarian immigrant who my brother still sees from time-to-time around the area. As a kid, I thought he had the coolest fort or storage shed that he built in his plot. It was surrounded by all sorts of plants so you couldn’t really see it unless you knew where to look. I asked my Dad at some point if Peter was going to make that a bean tepee and Dad said something along the lines of “probably not.” Eventually, I found out Peter was homeless and likely living in the garden at least some of the time. Again–not something that could happen today, but in retrospect it taught me that not everyone had the same life experiences. My dad never treated him differently than any of the other gardeners. I’d like to think I didn’t either, but I’m sure I probably did.
Eventually, like all good things, the big garden came to an end. By the mid 1990s, the original landowner was ill and his executors made the decision to develop the land. I asked my Pops if he was upset that it was going to be torn out. He said–“Naw. It was only supposed to last a year. A quarter century almost ain’t bad.” That said, he did shed a tear or two upon its demise. We Domek men can be a teary lot after all. But Mr. Schwarz had more than honored his end of the deal, so when it came time to say goodbye to the St. Francis Community Garden, there was no ill will or protests. Just gratitude that it existed for the time that it did.
I’m sure nostalgia has clouded my memory some. I do seem to remember boredom there and occasionally trying to avoid going, but those memories are pushed out by happier ones of spending time with my dad. I used to think that if I could live over one day from my childhood, I’d choose to replay a football game (one of the few winning games of course–we played hard, but it usually wasn’t enough). But as of late, with my father working so hard to recover from an awful and lengthy illness and hospitalization, I think I’d take reliving one more day in that garden with him. Watching him gently tie up tomato vines or powerfully wield a shovel or a hoe–I didn’t think there was anything he couldn’t grow or anything he didn’t know. How lucky I was.