The P-Patch Program is Seattle's community-gardening program. It was launched in the early 1970s during a national back-to-the-earth movement. In 1970, when the first Earth Day was held, University of Washington student Darlyn Rundberg (later Del Boca) was inspired to start a community garden in her Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle. Rundberg asked her neighbors, the Picardos, immigrants from southern Italy who owned a small truck farm, if she could use a corner of their property for a community garden. They agreed. The Picardo family had arrived in Seattle in the 1890s, settling first in South Park and later in Wedgwood. As the community-garden concept took off, the Picardos first leased and then sold what was left of their farm (about 2.5 acres) to the city of Seattle, and the P-Patch Program was born. (The P in "P-Patch" is a tribute to the family's name.) The Picardo farm in Wedgwood became the city's first P-Patch in 1973. By 1993, Seattle's P-Patch Program was the nation's largest community-gardening program. As of December 2017, Seattle had some 90 P-Patches tended by more than 3,125 gardeners.
The P of P-Patch
The P-Patch Program was named for the Picardo family who owned the tract of land that became the first P-Patch. The Picardo farm at one point covered some 30 acres, between 25th Avenue NE and 30th Avenue NE, from NE 75th Street to NE 82nd Street.
In the 1890s, Ernesto Picardo (1872-1961), who would become known as the patriarch of the Picardo family in Seattle, left the tiny village of Salza Irpina in the southern Italian province of Campania and set out for America. Reaching the West Coast, he thought he might become part of the Klondike Gold Rush but instead turned to farming in the Seattle area, where he was joined by two younger brothers: Sabino (1884-1963) and Orazio (ca. 1886-?). By 1922, they were farming land in South Park along the Duwamish River. A few years later, the Picardos swapped their house in South Park for wet bottomland in Seattle's far north end now known as Wedgwood but then called the Ravenna swamp.
"In the 1920s the extended Picardo clan moved from South Park in south Seattle to Green Lake in north Seattle, where the various families built houses clustered around the patriarch Ernesto and his wife Luisa. Ernesto and Luisa had acquired an estate property called the Remsberg House at 2200 N. 77th Street on the east side of Green Lake. Ernesto Picardo and his relatives lived at Green Lake while developing their farm in Wedgwood" ("A Picardo Perspective").
The brothers sold their vegetables to small grocery stores in the area and delivered some to the produce stands at Pike Place Market. "The extended Picardo family worked the farm seven days a week with the help of Japanese and Filipino workers. The men delivered produce to the grocery stores in the morning, then sold what remained at the Pike Place Market" (Berger). Some of the Japanese workers lived on the farm until 1942, when federal policies enacted during World War II forced them to leave Seattle for internment camps.
Ernie Picardo, one of Ernesto's grandchildren, recalled his childhood on the family farm in a 2005 interview:
"As kids we grew up around the farm. We would go through the farm and pull carrots and radishes. My grandpa liked to grow hot peppers. He'd cordon off a section and no one could touch them because he'd let them grow for seed for the next season. I must have been about 8 and I saw these great big peppers and picked them all. There were tomatoes, green tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, lots of bedding plants that used to be in the greenhouses" (Murakami).
After World War II, most of the Picardo sons did not want to return to farming, and the family started selling some of its land to developers. The property was further reduced when the city cut a swath for 25th Avenue NE across the farm's western border. The family continued to work what was left of the land, reduced to about 20 acres in the 1940s from the original 30 acres. As the decades advanced, it became clear that city farms were a dying breed. But one of Ernesto's sons, Orazio Picardo (1905-1985), known as Rainie, persevered on the family farm:
"In 1962, ... a column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called Rainie Picardo the 'last of Seattle's own farmers' ... The Picardo farm still produced lettuce, cabbage, radishes, celery, turnips, spinach, beans and other veggies, but by the mid-1960s it just wasn't paying anymore. It was doubly difficult having a farm with development nibbling at the edges and rising taxes. The once 30-acre farm was whittled down to a few acres ... The best option seemed to be to sell" (Berger).
Back-to-the-Earth Movement Takes Hold
But even as those pressures were forcing the Picardos and other longtime farmers to consider selling, a movement in the opposite direction was developing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As many Americans became focused on rampant consumerism, increasing pollution, the energy crisis, and urban unrest, some of them, many young, responded with what became known as the back-to-the-earth movement.
The inspiration for the P-Patch Program was seeded by Darlyn Rundberg, a University of Washington student and a neighbor of the Picardos. Encouraged by events like Earth Day, first held in 1970, and sympathetic to families affected by the economic downturn caused by the Boeing lay-offs that same year, Rundberg came up with an idea: Why not encourage neighbors to pitch in and use the land to grow food for the community?
She approached the Picardo family and asked permission to use a portion of the farm, which they granted. She then recruited students and families from nearby Wedgwood Elementary School to plant crops, including beans, broccoli, corn, and cabbage. "Families that helped out were offered small 8-foot by 8-foot plots around the edges to garden for themselves" (Hucka).
Rainie Picardo received many offers from builders who wanted to buy the land and turn it into housing, shops, or other commercial properties, but "Rainie could not bring himself to give up the wonderful soil and the joy of growing things" ("A Picardo Perspective").
During the first two years, Puget Consumers Co-op (since 2017 known as PCC Community Markets) managed the original Wedgwood garden. The experiment was so successful that in 1973 the Seattle City Council decided to pursue acquisition of the Picardo farm, a process that would take a few years. At first, according to Ernie Picardo, after his uncle Rainie retired, "the city took care of the taxes and in return Rainie prepared the ground for the plots the city used to lease. This went on for a few years, until the city bought the land" in 1976 (Murakami).
In 1974, after a 10-month trial period, the city authorized a community-gardening program and by year-end there were 10 community gardens, dubbed P-Patches to honor the Picardo family. At that time, the program was administered by the Department of Human Resources; later the Department of Neighborhoods took charge of the P-Patch Program.
By the end of the 1970s, there were 16 P-Patches. Volunteer work parties were held at most sites to build water systems, tool sheds, and fences. Some neighborhoods went further and beautified their sites with outdoor sculptures, mosaic tiles, and decorative benches.
P-Patch Program Threatened
Although the P-Patch Program was growing in popularity, the city considered it a temporary use of land. Some gardens were plowed over, lost to development, and the program as a whole was threatened by shrinking funds.
"Administratively, the P-Patch Program was housed with the city's social services. When a budget crunch hit in the late '70s and early '80s, some city staffers and community members didn't think the gardening program was as important as other social programs that were competing for scarce city funding, said Glenda Cassutt, who managed the program for the city in that period" (Hucka).
Two things saved the program. The first was the formation in 1979 of an advisory council that acted as an advocate and steward for the community gardens and helped raise funds. The second was when supporters of the P-Patch Program began to reach out to other community gardens across the country for moral support and to exchange ideas, helping to raise Seattle's profile.
The P-Patch Advisory Council had its work cut out for it. "It worked closely with City Council to reinstate funding and services, while obtaining block grant money ... In the mid-'80s, hard work and creativity began to turn things around for the P-Patches. Enterprising gardeners at Picardo placed signs along the road announcing that plots were available, and built a tool shed out of scrap materials donated from a construction site ... But still a sense that P-Patches were an interim use of public space persisted" (Alexander).
Attaining National Visibility
In the late 1980s, several pivotal events occurred. The program was widely hailed when four P-Patch sites won national community-gardening awards. Then in 1987 Seattle played host to about 150 avid community gardeners who were in town to attend the American Community Gardening Association's national conference. Conference-goers were wowed by Seattle's P-Patch Program, and carried the word back to their communities and local gardening enthusiasts.
By 1993, Seattle's P-Patch Program was the largest municipal community-gardening program in the country, with 30 gardens and about 600 people waiting for garden plots. By 2017 those figures had grown to 90 community gardens with about 2,000 names on the waiting list. The P-Patch gardens were built on property owned by different city departments as well as on land overseen by other public and private land owners.
Distinctive Elements Characterize Each Garden
As the program grew, so too did the distinctive character of each P-Patch. Some have picnic areas and benches; others sponsor educational events or children's gardens. Some P-Patches are located in residential areas, while others are in the downtown core or in the city's fast-disappearing industrial areas. Several include raised beds to make gardening easier for older residents or those with disabilities.
The Good Shepherd P-Patch, established in 1981, is located at 4618 Bagley Avenue N in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood on property once used as a home for girls. In the mid-1970s, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd sold the property to the city for use as a park. As planning got underway, neighborhood activists became involved. "They wanted to ensure that an urban agricultural center would be part of the new development. Their visions were grand; they included a greenhouse, a teaching center, and a community garden" ("Good Shepherd").
The Belltown P-Patch, created in 1995, is one of the most-visited public gardens, thanks to its downtown location at Elliott Avenue and Vine Street. It's known for its distinctive and whimsical artwork. Beautifully intricate ironwork with a garden-tool motif serves as a fence and gate; a series of mosaics adorn the retaining wall on Elliott Avenue.
The Estelle Street P-Patch at 3400 Rainier Avenue S in southeast Seattle grew out of a community-safety project. In the early 1990s, while on a school visit to the mayor's office, a third-grader said he was afraid to walk to school alone because his route was populated by drug dealers and addicts. His comments led to a clean-up project near John Muir Elementary School, overseen by South East Effective Development (SEED). At the same time, residents of a nearby apartment building said they were interested in a community garden. The two ideas merged to become the Estelle Street P-Patch, which celebrated its 27th year in 2018. Its diverse crops and gardening methods reflect the Asian communities living in the area.
Open to All
Anyone can visit a P-Patch garden, whether to admire a particularly bountiful crop of ripe vegetables or colorful flowers or to talk with one of the P-Patch gardeners. Most are happy to share advice or answer questions. Of course, it should go without saying that visitors are not welcome to pick flowers, fruits, or vegetables for their own use.
As of December 2017, the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods managed 90 P-Patches scattered throughout the city. This translates to 3,055 individual plots tended by some 3,125 gardeners growing organic produce, flowers, fruits, and herbs.
True to the program's civic-minded roots, the fruits and vegetables produced by P-Patchers are not just for personal consumption but also help to enhance the community's welfare. In 2017, P-Patch gardeners donated more than 63,000 pounds of produce to area food banks and hot-meal programs. "The P-Patch program also partners with programs that help feed low-income, immigrant populations and youth" (Morris).
Demand for a P-Patch plot remained high, and in 2018 the city website noted that wait times varied from three months to four years, depending on location. Turnover across the entire program was about 12.5 percent.
As of 2018, three sizes of garden plots were offered, with the annual plot fee based on the size: 10 feet by 10 feet ($43); 10 feet by 20 feet ($57), and 10 feet by 40 feet ($85). In addition to paying the annual fee, gardeners must volunteer at least eight hours to maintain the public areas of their P-Patch. For those who would like to garden but can't afford the fees, the city offers financial assistance.
Although the P-Patch Program is firmly rooted and recognized nationally as a model community-gardening program, the escalating population growth and development boom Seattle experienced in the late 2010s introduced new challenges for the future. "With the number of gardens continuing to increase while staff does not, maintaining a consistent level of service and fostering site leadership in fluid gardens will always be a challenge ... Many areas of the city, downtown, south lake union, Capitol Hill, to name a few, are woefully short of open space, let [alone] community gardens" (Macdonald).
Whatever the future holds for the P-Patch Program, one thing remains true: the love, respect, and passion for the land so central to the core of the Picardo family have left an indelible mark on the city of Seattle and its residents for generations to come.