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  • Jennifer Jewell


Ross Gay - Poet & Gardener, Photo by Natasha Komoda |


As we continue our exploration into creativity born of the garden –I share with you today a story and model for creativity coupled with kindness.

In July I had the great pleasure of making a full-day field trip to the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, California, where for 30 years a team of dedicated citizens and professionals have been putting the diverse lessons and heart of gardening to work to help offset the many challenges of homelessness in our world.

John traveled with me and through the course of the day, we joined morning circle time with the staff and trainees, toured the current garden – full of flowers and fruit and vegetables and fresh air, a stone’s throw from the ocean. And, I had the good fortune to speak with all the people there that day – from long-time trainees to new ones looking into the program - hopefully, tentatively; from the volunteer cook who every Tuesday brings the staff a morning snack and then prepares a hearty lunch for them to share together family-style, to the full time year round staff, to CSA shareholders. YOU will hear a bit from all of them today.

We start off the conversations with Darrie Ganzhorn, Executive Director and with the project since 1991. I caught up with Darrie for this conversation after my actual day in the field there. I started off by asking her to share the mission of the project, and to tell us a little more about her work. Darrie decribes both the scope of her work, and then her morning of the day we spoke. The he morning Darrie described sounded very similar to the Tuesday I was there – people gathering together finding company, routine, and purpose. As she and I continued our conversation, Darrie shared with me her background, growing up in Baltimore, being aware of racial and economic disparity while still very young, going off to study at Berkeley. In time, I asked her what had originally brought her to work at the Homeless Garden Project and what kept her there, and her first response was: I just felt as though something was very wrong, here we were the wealthiest nation in the world and somehow structurally people are set up up to find themselves without a home or support.

She shared with me a transformational moment while studying at Berkeley in which a professor/mentor said to her: "Darrie, you can do anything." She felt so strongly that everyone needed someone in their lives saying this and believing it to be true.

Darrie started at HGP as a volunteer and took on the writing and producing of a newsletter for the project – interviewing the participants who were experiencing homelessness and sharing their voices and stories with the community. The newsletter and personal story-work showed Darrie the power of relationship and listening.

Through the course of the day at HGP, John and I walked around the project at its current Natural Bridges Farm, we met and heard the story of Ella Fleming the Farm Manager who is celebrating her 1 year anniversary at the Project. Having grown up in Rhode Island, she farmed through college and then came west the University of California Santa Cruz’s Farm and Garden training Program. After completing the program, she taught there for a time, and then worked for a private residential garden firm, before coming to HGP for a greater community impact to her work. As we spoke, the hubbub of the working farm, the birds and the wind all chime in.

As of this year, the HGP has a new permanent site in the historic Pogonip Greenbelt property in the heart of Santa Cruz. Through a public-private partnership, this public land and park parcel, which the voters of Santa Cruz awarded to the project over creating a golf course, will be available following soil tests and planning for possible soil remediation by the Project. This permanent farm site will triple the job training capacity of the Homeless Garden Project. Ella, who turned 30 this year along with the HGP, shared her hopes for the move to the larger permanent site:

Ella goes on to share some of her favorite aspects of the Homeless Garden Project, including the beauty of flowers, the medicinal properties of plants, and sharing the ways they can be used with others

After speaking with Ella, I had time with with Andrea del Rio, who joined the team as the Training and Education Supervisor in February of this year. She is a constant touch point for each trainee as they make their way through the year of the program. Born and raised in California, Andrea has worked as a small scale organic farmer around the country and was really drawn to the combination of organic farming, community and food justice here at Homeless Garden Project. Her long term goals for the job are to keep showing up - consistently and on time as a model of stability for the trainees.

Andrea believes in the power of individuals to make positive change in their lives. When I ask her if she’s hopeful that a program like this can really create change and structure enough to allow these trainees to live their dreams, she acknowledges that it is hard hard work - but she is believes in the hard work.

Throughout the day, I speak to trainees between their tasks – weeding and turning early spring crops under, harvesting strawberries, kale, lettuces, beets, & young onions for the afternoon’s CSA pickups, mid-day the group joined by us enjoys lunch shared family style under a covered area in the heart of the garden – not far from the on-site farm stand, 30 year old pear trees run down a row in view, deep blue lavender ready to harvest extends out the other direction. One of the trainees I speak with is Adam, who is about to graduate and shares his story with openness and warmth.

I also speak with Mike, a graduate of the program and now the Crop Manager in charge of the seeds, starts, and greenhouse. Mike speaks about the impact of having the garden to come to, to learn in, and to grow on from for other people experiencing homelessness.

In a time of great fear, division, and disconnection this community based model of caring wholly for others from the garden out – has a lot to teach us all. I also visited with trainee/participant, Shadley. Finally, in the late afternoon, John and I are there for the Feed Two Birds CSA pickups, wherein local non-profits purchase the CSA share boxes to share forward with their community, like the local hospice who will pick up the 21 bouquets Ella told us about earlier in the conversation. During the pick up time, I have the chance to speak with John Dietz, a retired satellite engineer who now helps trainees navigate finding housing and through another non-profit the 180-60 program purchases CSA shares to help nourish the newly-housed and maintain connection with them.

Both at the HGP site farmstand and through their CSA you can buy fresh organic vegetables herbs and flowers. In the online or physical stores in Santa Cruz, you can find lovely, fragrant and delicious products made by the Homeless Garden Project workshop training, that help sustain the work.

The Project’s “evolution has been gradual building on successes and paying attention to what works. And kindness, copmassion, patience, and garden-level persistence are among those things.

Follow them on Instagram homelessgardenproject or online at

Join us again next week when we speak with British gardener & psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith, whose book, "The Well-Gardened Mind", explores her many years of research and findings as the physiology of the brain, and the creativity and connections cultivated in the brain when gardening. Listen in next week!






One hour is simply not long enough to capture and share all of the important information or all of the stories about the homeless garden project. It started as a beautiful decorative herb garden gifted to a Homeless shelter in Santa Cruz, next an organic strawberry field was added, and when Darrie first joined as a volunteer working on the newsletter and sharing the voices of the HGP community with the larger community, she describes that "the project was already a beautifully functioning micro community, Growing food for local markets, seeking grants to pay salaries and pay trainees while they were learning."

Darrie speaks a lot about structure in our conversation about the homeless garden project and the symbolic importance of structure is not lost It is simultaneously the form of a physical home, a container for our gardens a scaffolding on which we build our days our families and our lives. The layers of language – such as the denotation and connotation of Structure – comes up for me around how importance it is we understand the impact of all of our words – how certain words or phrases when we unpack them or really hear them – for instance the difference between hearing “homeless person” versus “person experiencing homelessness” changes the power and the emphasis completely. It is never too late to listen to and hear our own word choices more clearly – how they confer dignity, respect, equity, versus not doing these things. How we tend our words is a direct manifestation of how we tend ourselves, our own gardens, and one another.

Homelessness in our world is not a simple challenge or problem on the individuals’ level or on the community and larger culture’s level; one of the things that was so rich for me the day John and I visited the HGP in Santa Cruz was to see how beautiful and multifaceted - prismatic - the structure of the Homeless Garden Project’s response is – and yet, it’s also simple. It’s individual people reaching out from where they are with what they have to other individuals in order to empower and lift them. It is time and labor and emotionally intensive. It’s not a perfect solution, it’s not a Silver bullet, it’s not super fast and it’s not super inexpensive but it is as human and layered and sensitive as the individual stories that find themselves there. And in that there can be slow, steady, painstaking progress duly noted and celebrated – one life at a time, by one group of individuals coming together to compound their impact in helping another group of otherwise disenfranchised individuals.

And that is an age old story of kindness coupled with creativity to offset other age old stories of lack and loss and let down.

The Homeless Garden Project is modeling structure and structural integrity and how we support, shelter, and hold each other up in the world.




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