The high harvest

Pub date November 24, 2010

CULTURE “There was some sweet in there and some spice — it was like finger food, you could eat it like chips.” Larry Medders, 11-year resident of the Cecil Williams Glide Community House, is showing off the new rooftop garden, installed by the San Francisco Zen Center, on top of his nine-story supportive housing complex. He’s talking about his introduction to kale.

Medders cooks for himself in his studio apartment and used to stick to the same meals. He likes pasta and herbal teas, which he now brews with the mint and chamomile growing upstairs. An older man from the South endowed with a becoming drawl, he comes up once a day “to water and make sure everything’s in its place.” At the opening ceremony for the new green space, Medders tried the iron-rich greens for the first time. “Now I’m hooked,” he says.

If a once-bare Tenderloin rooftop seems like an incongruous spot to grow spinach, carrots, lemons, blueberries, parsley, onions, and tomatoes (a few of the nascent crops at the Community House), it shouldn’t. The buzzing streets below Medders’ feet offer sparse play areas for children, occasional safety risks, and few places to buy fresh veggies.

The city has tried to attract grocery stores to the area, so far unsuccessfully. “Grocery store operators and other retailers perceive that the area is unsafe and have expressed concerns about the safety of their employees and customers,” says Amy Cohen, director of neighborhood business development. TL residents largely must content themselves with corner stores for neighborhood shopping trips — a bummer for low-income seniors who live in the area.

For the residents of Community House’s 55 units — many dealing with life post-addiction and homelessness and all low income — the roof was already a place to gather. Building barbeques were common. But they knew the rooftop could be much more. “I just wanted to see more greenery, because it really is beautiful,” Medders says.

Enter the San Francisco Zen Center ( The center has operated in tandem with Muir Beach’s Green Gulch Farm since the early 1970s, providing a green dojo for meditation students and producing organic produce for restaurants such as Greens in Fort Mason. Says Zen Center vice president Susan O’Connell, “the color green alone is calming, the oxygen and the sense of being surrounded by life.” Gardening can aid in one’s quest for enlightenment, she says. “Zen takes a lot of different forms, it’s not just sitting down.”

Taking inspiration from a garden next door on top of Glide Church, the Zen Center pledged to fill Community House’s communal space with veggies. Now 15 planter boxes built by construction training nonprofit Youth Builds stand at different heights so children and residents in wheelchairs can work them. There are compost bins, shaded tables, chairs, a sink where cooking classes will be held once a local artist finishes painting a mural on the surrounding wall.

The roof’s design, plotted by ex-Green Gulch apprentice Jamie Morf, is laid out so residents can socialize (when Medders and I toured the roof, three children were eating a late lunch on one of the round tables) as well as sit and be thoughtful in nooks designed with peace in mind. “One of the most important precursors to being able to meditate is called taking refuge. But that’s really hard for people in the Tenderloin,” O’Connell says.

We are joined by Patty Rose and Arlinda Van Brunt, two other long-term residents who, with Medders, have stepped up to form the core gardening group. The three teach me about the challenges of running a plot that belongs to every one of the residents living in a nine-story building, including many who have never tended a kitchen garden before. The learning curve can include beginner’s missteps, like overpicking a hardy green onion plant that the trio laments.

“Look at this,” Van Brunt, an energetic woman whose father’s landscaping career left her with a severe aversion to seeing mistreated plants, is pointing at a vertical potato cage that doesn’t seem to be producing the same bushy green leafs as its neighbor. “They overwatered it! It’s our first year, we’re still finding a lot of things out.”

But these kinds of small setbacks show that the garden is being used — and often, they lead to new discoveries in and of themselves. The aforementioned rotting potato cage attracted the notice of the roof’s nightcrawlers, which must have scooted the 10 feet between their two massive bins to the cage, where they were discovered by Van Brunt.

The composting process in the worm bins is now one of her favorite parts of the garden. With the aid of Medders, she lifts the heavy metal lid of one of the bins and pulls aside the shredded newspaper piled on top of the composting material. Underneath, there is a teeming, squirming mass of pink worms. Van Brunt tenderly fingers a handful of them. “Look at that, are they really breeding in there? The nastier it is, the more they like it,” she says, exhibiting the satisfaction of a woman who has taken charge of her food system.