Urban Gardening is Alive and Well and Living in Downtown San Jose

San Jose is the latest city to make use of a state law letting landlords to loan out urban land for agriculture. (Rachael Myrow)

Ask any gardener: Nothing tastes so sweet as something you grew yourself, even in the big city.

Before Silicon Valley was paved over with concrete, it was the Valley of Heart’s Delight, boasting some of the world’s richest topsoil.

So there’s poetic irony in the fact that some techies can’t wait to get their hands in that soil.

"It’s just soothing. It’s healing," says PayPal cloud manager Anant Kumar. He bought a home in San Jose in 2000. He tore out the grass straight away and planted a garden. "I started out with what was easy: pumpkins, squashes, zucchinis, tomatoes, chili peppers."

Anant Kumar originally hails from the big city of New Delhi, in India, but his father grew up on a farm. Bitter melons – a taste of Kumar's home – are coming soon.

Valley Verde is offering workshops for beginning urban gardeners, as well as seedlings to re-plant back home.
Valley Verde is offering workshops for beginning urban gardeners, as well as seedlings to re-plant back home. (Rachael Myrow)

"You saute them with a few onions, maybe add a little bit of mango powder. You got to try it!" Kumar insists.

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Kumar is keen to spread the good word about gardening. Along with several PayPal colleagues, he volunteered to build a greenhouse for a San Jose non-profit called Valley Verde, which helps low-income families grow their own food.

On a recent sunny day, the group celebrated the greenhouse’s grand opening in San Jose’s first “urban agriculture incentive zone.” What was a used car lot is now covered with raised planting beds and stacks of bagged soil. "It looks amazing," Kumar gushes, "and I think we need more of this in the city."

There are workshops for beginners, and seedlings to replant back home. Property owner Thang Do says he does intend to develop on the land eventually, but in the meantime, he’s game to lend the land to gardeners.  "I mean, what’s not to like about this?" he asks, rhetorically, before acknowledging, "The city and the county take a hit on something like this because they’re giving landowners like me a property tax break."

Phang Do addresses a crowd that gathered for the grand opening of the greenhouse on his property. He plans to develop after five years but is happy to let Valley Verde have the run of the place before then. Do says "At a time when national politics is so divisive, nice to see local community come together."
Phang Do addresses a crowd that gathered for the grand opening of the greenhouse on his property. He plans to develop on the land after five years, but is happy to let Valley Verde have the run of the place before then. Do says "At a time when national politics is so divisive, nice to see local community come together."
(Rachael Myrow)

State law changed in 2014 to incentivize landowners like Do by assessing the property value as relatively cheap farmland – not pricey downtown lots. But the concept is taking more time than anticipated to take root. It’s taken years to get counties and cities to make the necessary local rule changes.

"It’s frustrating how long it takes because it seems like a no-brainer. It seems like you could just make it happen. But government is government," Do says.

Is it worth the bother? Yes, says Tori Truscheit, an organizer with La Mesa Verde, a network of home gardeners working in tandem with Valley Verde. "Not only are they going to have beautiful vegetables, but they’re going to be connected to other people who care about where their food comes from," Truscheit says.

So far, only four cities have the zones: San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego. Los Angeles is working toward passing an ordinance. Unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County, as well as Santa Clara County, already offer the tax breaks.

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The state law, however, expires in 2019.  But urban farmers have their eye on a new bill that would extend the program for another decade, hoping it makes its way to the Governor’s desk before harvest time in October.

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