A Farmer in the Parking Garage | Civil Eats

A Farmer in the Parking Garage

The continuum of problems associated with our petroleum-based economy hit a horrific apex this summer when millions of barrels of oil from an exploded deepwater well gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. For many, the catastrophe has spurred a serious look at their own reliance on fossil fuels.

But for San Franciscan Gene Thompson, a dawning consciousness about the destructive nature and unsustainability of American consumption habits started in the wake of an even bigger paradigm-shifting disaster: September 11th. Several years of brooding over cause and effect and each individual’s role in the chain of events leading up to the attack resulted in a life-changing resolution that few Americans, let alone urbanites, make: taking responsibility for growing their own food.

It started three years ago with a single tomato plant. Today, he and his wife Ellen estimate that they grow 25-30 percent of their total food intake. Current crops include tomatoes, peas, blackberries, raspberries, basil, carrots, mushrooms and several types of lettuce, almost all cultivated in nine half-barrels of soil, tucked away in a corner of their San Francisco apartment’s parking garage. He is also growing sprouts in a couple of jars on his kitchen table.

Gene tells the story of his project’s germination (pun intended):

“When 9/11 happened, I thought a lot about what importance it had to me personally. At that time I was working mostly in theater and it just felt like sitting around memorizing lines wasn’t what I ought to be doing. I wanted to have my own actions be reflective of something positive with respect to what had happened. I was thinking about how oil and all the energy used in mass food production was one of the problems. That thought just evolved.”

Part of that evolution was a moment of clarity that came to him while looking at a package of frozen blueberries. “The blueberries came from Serbia,” he recalls. “I’m living in California and eating in my oatmeal blueberries shipped from Serbia. Finally, I got too bothered by my growing understanding of just what’s involved in buying a simple tomato to not do something.”

Thompson had “never planted a seed before,” he says. But an initial tomato plant was a success, followed by one that he grew in his living room that the family called Stretch. “He grew all the way onto the ceiling and across,” says Ellen. “We harvested tomatoes from him until he became infested with bugs. He was a total experiment; we had no idea what he’d do. He just kept looking for the sun.”

Thompson next planted lettuce. “Lettuce and salad greens are the ticket if you’re talking about sustainable gardening,” Gene says. “I grow salad greens all through the year because of our mild, cool, moist climate. You harvest the lettuce as the leaves grow, and they grow back again. It’s so much easier than everything else and in about 30 days you can harvest the stuff and put it in your salad. That’s really gratifying.”

To help get him going, Thompson took a class at San Francisco City College from Pam Peirce, the author of Golden Gate Gardening, a sort of local Bible for those who garden in the Bay Area. He also received help setting up from The Ecology Center, a sustainable living organization. But he believes anyone can start planting with the same lack of experience he started out with.

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“There’s a lot of trial and error, but the basic information you need to start is given on the package of seeds itself,” he says. “How many days it takes to germinate, how deep you have to plant, how far apart. Absolutely anyone can just put the seeds in the ground and see what happens. What kind of soil you plant in and all that, that’s important, but most likely the seeds are just going to grow no matter what you do. They may not grow quite as well as you like but they will grow.”

Cost is not a hindering factor, Thompson thinks. “Just buying a package of seeds and planting them costs just the price of the seeds.” He points to a package of seeds for mesclun lettuce. “That costs $2.69 for about 12 different solid greens. Buy that and some soil and just start planting.”

Space, however, is a bigger issue for people who want to grow in an urban environment. One solution Thompson hit upon was to plant his lettuce in the same container as his tomatoes. “The tomato planet is tall with broad leaves that really like sun,” he says. “It sinks deep roots into the ground. Lettuce is a much shallower-rooting plant, so you can put it on top of the tomato plant; their roots can coexist. And the lettuce likes the shade it gets from the tomato plant.”

Such ingenuity is a key component in maintaining his project. He lives out by the ocean, in the foggiest part of San Francisco, so “nobody can figure out how I get this great production out of the tomato plants.” His secret: He moves them every day from the back parking garage to the building’s front, enabling them to soak up both the morning and afternoon sun. In the front, right on the street, he nestles the plants in an open storage area and magnifies the sunlight using reflective material he salvaged from a dumpster.

Thompson would like to stop growing the tomatoes in favor of more complex projects. He is learning, for example, how to create his own soil using compost. (He doesn’t like buying commercial soil because it comes in unrecyclable plastic bags and has been shipped from outside the Bay Area). But, the tomato plants have become a sort of neighborhood symbol of optimism.

“I was going to stop doing them,” he says, “but there is so much interest from people who regularly pass by. One person said to me ‘It just makes me so happy when I see those tomatoes.’ Another person told me it made her hopeful. Another told me it made her proud. She was a Russian girl in her 20s and I thought, well, maybe she doesn’t have quite the right word. But I mentioned it to Ellen and she said maybe she did mean proud. It makes her proud to know somebody else is growing their own tomatoes. People really understand this.”

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Photos by Jon Brooks

Originally published on Tonic

Jon Brooks is a freelance writer and playwright from San Francisco, where he has worked with the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe. From 1997-2000, he was the Lead Editor of Yahoo! News Full Coverage. He writes on film and other topics at http://www.narrativejunkie.com. Read more >

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