A long wait for Seattle P-patches

Demand is greater than ever for a 10-by-10-foot urban farm. City officials say 1,650 people are waiting for a plot at one of 54 gardens.
Crosscut archive image.

The City of Seattle P-patch on Queen Anne Hill. (Peter Lewis)

Demand is greater than ever for a 10-by-10-foot urban farm. City officials say 1,650 people are waiting for a plot at one of 54 gardens.

A heightened desire to commune with nature, a need to get your hands dirty, exercise, saving money. All help explain the keen pursuit by a larger-than-ever segment of Seattle to lease a piece of land to produce veggies, grow flowers, and otherwise work the earth.

Figures released this month by the city's Department of Neighborhoods show there are 1,650 people signed up for a P-patch plot. That's up by more than 600 people from 2006, and up 400 from just last fall.

Viewed as a series of queues for specific gardens, the line is even longer — 2,559 — because each person may submit up to three requests to snag a plot around town. The city currently maintains 54 gardens, with a total of roughly 2,500 plots.

Unsurprisingly, the longest waits are in the densest parts, such as Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, and Ballard.

P-patch program manager Rich Macdonald said he knew this year was different when, at the start of the season, he noticed that "even sites that are often not full at the beginning of the year (were) this year."

The P-patch program's Web site needs updating. For example, it shows the wait at the Queen Anne patch at 60.The truth: 118, almost double. Thomas Street, on Capitol Hill, is listed at 75. Reality: 135. And Ballard shows 37, but the real number is 100, according to more recent data provided by the city.

Demand in the most coveted areas translates to a wait of "at least two years," Macdonald said. He noted that existing gardeners who move from one neighborhood to another are grandfathered and receive priority placement for a garden nearer their new residence.

As recently reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, some people are so eager to farm in the city that they've tried to turn public parking strips into gardens, which could require legislation to be legal.

The smallest P-patch plot available, 10 feet square, leases for $34 a year. The city supplies water and tools. In addition to tending their individual plots, gardeners are obliged to volunteer eight hours for the common good, which typically involves weeding public pathways and common areas.

Macdonald can't say definitively why interest is peaking. But he has a few theories, including the state of the economy and more expensive food prices.

Also contributing to the clamor may be increased media focus on the food system, "eating local and raising people's awareness of where food comes from, and taking more control over it," he said.

Ray Schutte, president of the P-Patch Trust, a non-profit group that supports community gardens and leases land for patches back to the city at the rate of a buck a year, echoes that assessment.

"Overall," he said, "there's a great deal of booming interest in quality of food and understanding of all that. Couple that with the fact that we're not growing land to garden on as fast as we're growing people. So demand is just going up all across the town."

Macdonald is in the process of compiling results from a 2006 survey of gardeners. A similar survey conducted two years earlier drew an 80 percent response rate and revealed that more than three in four gardeners returned to their plots, though turnover varied significantly among sites.

Macdonald saw what he described as a "remarkable shift" the last time he put a report together — the growing number of gardeners who said they lived within walking distance of their plots. The number residing within a quarter mile increased nearly three-fold to 37 percent, and another 28 percent were within a half mile, up from 20 percent.

The '04 survey also disclosed that patches were a significant source of food, with nearly a third of gardeners getting 50 percent or more of their produces needs from their patches from April to October. Based on anecdotal information, there's no reason to believe those trends won't continue.

The No. 1 reason people gave for gardening was to grow their own food, followed by the desire to grow "organic." In descending order, other categories were: "solace/therapy," "recreation," "commune with nature," and "sense of community."

Some elaborated with comments regarding what motivated them: "teach my child about where food comes from," "grow food for others," "love the people," and "brings joy."

Among those hoping to get her hands dirty soon is Susan Talton, an apartment dweller in Belltown who is wait-listed on three high-demand P-patches: Belltown, Interbay, and Queen Anne. She signed up for a plot last August after moving here from Phoenix.

"I've been an avid recreational gardener (tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers) for years, so was thrilled when I learned about the P-Patch program," she said via e-mail. "Belltown would be the closest to me, but I know the wait list there is longer than average, so a short bus ride to another garden would be fine, too ... I expected a growing-season's wait, but yes, it has dragged on a bit."

It could drag on a bit longer.

  

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