by K.J. Johnston

“Just grab it and gently twist,” Josephine Laing tells her neighbor as they huddle over a yellow crookneck squash growing in a brick planter along a driveway in a San Luis Obispo neighborhood near Cal Poly. College student Robyn Kleffman follows her directions, saying, “Oh, it’s prickly!” She flashes a proud smile as she shows off her harvest to other students from the neighborhood.

Josephine and her husband Frank Zika, horticulture alumni from Cal Poly, are excited to help the many student renters learn how to grow food in their expansive yards. Most of the rambling ranch-style homes in the neighborhood are occupied by students these days, and the couple decided to reach out and get to know their neighbors through gardening.

Now the former anonymity has been replaced with respectful relationships, as students and homeowners share compost and collard greens, worm-bed juice and arugula. The students are thrilled with their new understanding of food.

“It’s wonderful. I don’t have to go to the store and buy produce any more,” says Robyn as she picks a bouquet of red and green lettuce leaves from a small raised bed in her front yard. “This lettuce and this cilantro will be good for the little Mexican food fiesta we’re doing tonight.”
Two of her roommates, Katie Camfield and Monica Lewis, tell Josephine about the “amazing pasta” they made the night before, using thinly shaved zucchini from the garden instead of noodles, with freshly harvested basil. “It was supposed to serve eight, but we ate it between the two of us!” Katie says, adding, “I think I’ll always have a garden.” Robyn agrees: “I’ll never go back.” She says she’s thankful for all the effort from Josephine, whom she calls “our very own Mother Nature.”

A few months earlier, they all worked together to rehabilitate the front yard’s weed-infested soil, which had been treated with herbicides. They buried kitchen compost collected by a few of their neighbors and planted a peach tree, then created a raised bed for a lime (for margaritas) and a variety of vegetables.

Around 20 fruit trees have been planted around the neighborhood by Josephine and the students, and the trees are thriving in the rich compost. Most of the students won’t be around the enjoy the fruit, but they were willing to “enter into the river of food production from fruit trees,” Josephine says.

In another yard, Joe Barcus and Frankie Galvez admire their young apple, apricot, peach, and persimmon trees. Volunteer squash proliferates around the fruit trees, and a narrow bed along the back fence overflows with cucumbers, melons, peas, and lettuce. “The first food we ate, it was actually pretty good,” says Frankie. “I was surprised what you can do, just at home.”

“It’s good to have fresh food right in our back yard,” Joe says. “We’ve picked at least two dozen squash. We just grill them.” The two students head to the little planter at the edge of their front porch, brimming with Russian cherry tomatoes, and they focus on picking enough for the night’s salad. Another roommate, Fil Fekadu, checks out the maturing corn plants growing in the foundation bed by the front walkway, next to braising broccoli and kale. “It’s nice to step outside and garden whenever you want. It’s really enjoyable, a good way to pass the time instead of sitting in front of the TV. Thank you for helping us make a garden. This would have just been dirt,” Fil tells Josephine.

Across the street, Christos Mavrakis and Mitchell Bush are proud to show a visitor their back yard with its thriving fruit trees, vegetable beds, berry plants, and even a hen and a duck. “We planted these trees for the next generation,” says Christos. “After all, we get to eat the pineapple guavas and loquats that somebody else planted.”

“We couldn’t eat all the arugula, there was so much,” says Mitchell, adding that the dino kale and braising broccoli make a good green smoothie. He talks about the stir-fry he’s planning for dinner, with green beans, cauliflower, and zucchini all from the garden. “It’s convenient to just walk outside and pick food. It’s fun too. We eat pretty good.” Together, the two roommates yank a perfectly shaped beet from a raised bed, as Christos says, “We’ll grill the beets and use the tops in a beet-green omelet.”

Josephine’s gardening skills have also been tapped by students a few blocks away, where a strip of rich soil next to the back of the house is packed with kale, lettuce, basil, and collards, and a homemade worm bin wriggles with life. “Pick whatever you want,” Mark Scandalis tells one of his roommates, Rachel Wilson. Another roommate, Patrick Ceriale, tells Josephine about the green smoothie he made from the lush garden greens. “It was really good, really healthy, really awesome!” he says with obvious pride. Rachel tells her about the lunchtime salad, with kale and basil added. “It’s really nice, saying ‘I wish we had cilantro – oh wait, we do!’”

Josephine and husband Frank say their lives have been enriched by their new relationships with their younger neighbors. An added benefit: The students’ parties are quieter now, and end much earlier than in the past. Plus the two have the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping to promote locally grown food. “These guys are growing vegetables they’d never seen or heard of before,” Frank says. “A couple of months ago they didn’t know dino kale from dinosaurs. Arugula? Forget it! Now they’re using it in green smoothies!”

K.J. Johnston is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of local, national, and international publications.