On September 9, 2023, Seattle gardeners and friends gather to celebrate a half-century of city-sponsored community gardening through the P-Patch Program. The program was launched in 1973 after University of Washington student Darlyn Rundberg (later Del Boca) was inspired to start a community garden in her Wedgwood neighborhood. Rundberg asked her neighbors, the Picardos, immigrants from southern Italy, if she could use a corner of their property for a community garden. They agreed. 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.
On August 25, 1973, gardeners from the new Picardo P-Patch gathered together with Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman to celebrate the harvest. Political mainstays John Miller, Bruce Chapman, Sam Smith, Jeanette Williams, and Tim Hill were in attendance. Following a tour of the community garden, the group shared a vegetarian meal made from the bounty: carrot bread, corn on the cob, and other veggies, potato salad, pumpkin pie, and dandelion tea, among other treats.
The Picardo Farm, site of the first official P-Patch, at one point covered some 30 acres, between 25th Avenue NE and 30th Avenue NE, from NE 75th Street to NE 82nd Street. The luncheon was a time for the "patchers" to advocate for the city to extend its recent lease of the property in the Ravenna/Wedgwood neighborhood and, perhaps, to consider purchasing the farm outright, a goal achieved in 1976.
Few could have predicted that the P-Patch Program would grow quickly to encompass organic gardens throughout the city, gleaning programs, special gardens for refugees and people of color, children’s gardens, demonstration gardens, and several urban farms and orchards. The program would become a model for community gardening around the country and the world.
Fifty years following that momentous repast, on September 9, 2023, Seattle celebrated a half-century of community gardening that began at that first P-Patch. (The P stands for Picardo and is also a nod to the pea patches of yore.) The event, held at the Magnuson Park Community Garden in Northeast Seattle, was the culmination of months of planning and smaller festivities at community gardens all over town. Earlier, on January 31, 2023, Mayor Bruce Harrell and the Seattle City Council had proclaimed 2023 as the "Year of Community Gardening."
On a warm Saturday afternoon, gardeners and friends of gardens gathered in the amphitheater area of Magnuson Park to meet, greet, and listen to each other. Speakers at the event included P-Patch Coordinator Kenya Fredie, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods director Jenifer Chao, Councilmember for the 4th District Alex Pedersen, and Ben Wheeler of the Seattle Housing Authority, among others. Magnuson Community Garden coordinator Mark Huston warmed up the audience with some "dad" jokes. The program concluded by honoring long-time organic garden educator and translator Yao Fou Hinh Chao for his many years of service.
The event also featured fun activities including contests for the largest zucchini, the best zuc disguise, and the best floral arrangement. A marimba band performed on the edge of the garden, and refreshments were served. There were historical display boards, children’s activities, and educational hand-outs. P-Patch staff offered packets of groundcover seeds for winterizing garden plots and commemorative headscarves.
Fifty Years of Growth and Change
A detailed history of the P-Patch Program can be read in Rita Cipalla’s HistoryLink essay. Over the course of a half century, much as changed in the program, while the core values of organic gardening and neighbor helping neighbor remain the same.
At the 50-year mark in 2023, the city boasted 91 active P-Patches with more than 3,000 individual plots tilled by some 3,500 households. Some of the patches are large and varied enough to be called community gardens. There are also two large urban farms – Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetland and Marra Farm – and several orchards, as well as a number of gardens not affiliated with the city. One of the fascinating aspects of Seattle's community gardens is the variety of landscapes adapted for their use. Whether for interim use or permanent, the gardens and P-Patches have managed to find homes in odd and interesting places, including an old landfill, an abandoned airstrip, reclaimed wetlands, a public utility right-of-way, and the top of a parking garage in the shadow of the Space Needle. All these are bits of the urban landscape repurposed for the growing of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
While the gardeners of 50 years ago had to clamor for the attention of city officials, today the P-Patch Program is Seattle’s pride. Long-time gardener and activist Joyce Moty remarked on a 100 percent turnaround in thinking about the program, both from the city and from neighbors: "It is impressive that any city program can last for 50 years given all the changes that take place during that time. Early on it was difficult to place a garden in a neighborhood. People raised objections. There was fear of low-income folks coming in – outsiders. But then folks started to see the benefits of the gardens. And now people call up the city and ask if they can start a P-Patch on a vacant piece of land" (Moty).
A number of council actions have supported and encouraged the creation of community gardens, from funding mechanisms such as the Neighborhood Matching Fund and the Pro Parks Levy (2000, renewed in 2008 as the Parks and Green Spaces Levy), to planning documents including the city’s Comprehensive Plan (1994, updated in 2016 and amended often) and Food Action Plan (2012, renewed in 2019).
In partnerships with the Seattle Housing Authority, the erstwhile Cultivating Communities initiative, GROW Northwest (a support organization and fiscal sponsor for urban gardens), and others, the program has made concerted efforts to provide gardening space for newcomers to the city, including immigrants and refugees from African, Asian, and Latin American countries. Many of these families come from farming backgrounds and a space to plant and harvest familiar foods is a way to ease the transition to their new home. There are also initiatives to provide gardening space and support for BIPOC populations and youth, as well as accommodations for the elderly and disabled. Some patches incorporate demonstration gardens with educational signage. All gardens are encouraged to implement gleaning programs, where excess produce is given to food banks and feeding programs; many patches have established giving gardens – beds planted and harvested cooperatively to benefit the hungry. In some SHA communities, gardeners are allowed to sell their produce at farm stands.
Over the years, Seattle has developed at least 125 P-Patch gardens. Not all have survived. Offten, patches have suffered by being labeled "interim use." The pressures of urban development coupled with rising property values brought down a number of gardens. Other succumbed to social conflict, both external and internal, and other factors.
The program has struggled to roll out garden space in some high-need neighborhoods and provide space for those unable to afford even the modest fees associated with renting a plot. To meet these challenges, the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, home of the program, has taken a proactive approach. Food security and racial equity are the watchwords of P-Patch staff today. P-Patch Community Gardening Program Supervisor Kenya Y. Fredie recalls that the first P-Patch at Picardo Farm was originally set up to help struggling families during the Boeing Bust years:
"True to its origins, the P-Patch program continues to grow food for those in need and focuses on supporting low-income and historically underserved community members. Department of Neighborhood staff have prioritized achieving racial equity within the program by dismantling the institutional racism and systemic barriers that have prevented people of color from fully participating in the program" (Fredie).
Public health and safety are also concerns, particularly in recent years. Fredie counts the Covid-19 pandemic (2020-2023) as a time of both highs and lows for the program.
"Deemed an essential service, P-Patch Community Gardens continued to have an important impact on our kitchen tables, provided much needed exercise, fresh air, and peace. We witnessed a huge spike in interest in the program, as well as an increase in neighbors supporting their neighbors. The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the importance of taking care of each other, especially our most vulnerable community members" (Fredie).
The Next 50 Years
The P-Patch community gardening program will no doubt face many challenges going forward, including the effects of climate change, demographic shifts, public health, and the constant struggle to reach true equity in resource allocation. However, with the spirit and enthusiasm evinced at the 50th anniversary celebration, we can look forward to another 50 years of creative, healthful urban gardening.