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Lydia Court neighbors with common vision create bountiful garden

By: Linda Peterson
October 8, 2009

George Martin has lived in Rohnert Park for the past 11 years. He works from home and says he has his best meetings while pacing and talking on his headset. These days, Lydia Commons Community Garden is where he walks every day.
But for many years it was just a nice little park with a playground where some of the neighbors came to walk their dogs and chat with each other.
Unfortunately, every winter with the rains, the park’s dirt turned to mud and Martin’s dog would track it into his house. Being an inventive sort, Martin came up with an idea to solve this problem - planting drought tolerant plants along the entry to park to prevent run-off and mud with very low maintenance. He approached the city of Rohnert Park and after some discussion, they agreed to let him implement his plan, thus beginning a relationship with city park staff.
One of Martin’s neighbors who also frequented the park with her dog is former RP mayor Vicki Vidak-Martinez. Over the years she had brought up the idea of a community garden in their little park, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when outside factors and events drove the neighborhood to action that things progressed toward realizing that dream.

Lydia Court faces its challenge
Strangers began showing up in their park at night dealing drugs. With Martin’s back yard abutting the park, he saw what was happening. Upset by what was occurring, he started to fight back and enlisted his neighbors. It was risky for him to tackle this alone; Martin’s garage door was tagged once for his efforts.
On Sunday nights Martin, Vidak-Martinez and a core group of neighbors would go into the park and disrupt what was going on by their presence. Though they could not and did not want to do that all the time so that’s when the community garden concept really took hold. Over that summer, the estimate was 15-20 calls to police. The city of Rohnert Park’s resources and money were being spent on a problem that was not going away.

A garden takes root
Martin and Vidak-Martinez decided the time was right. There were cutbacks in the city’s budget and a garden seemed an ideal way to discourage drug dealing in their park. With help from another neighbor, Teresa Lopez, a member of Concerned Citizens of Rohnert Park (C-CORP), they found the right people on city staff to approach. They pitched their idea: Access to land, mulch, chips, and water in exchange for taking care of the park. The city agreed it would be a good pilot program and gave them thumbs up.
In February of this year, park staff replaced old irrigation to ready the land for planting. In April the Lydia Court garden group found a farmer willing to plow the land. His rate was $40 an hour, but when he heard what they were planning, he told them that if he could plow it in an hour he would do it for free - and he did.
And thus the Lydia Commons Community Garden began this spring. Mounded beds were created for an initial 17 beds (there are now 20, with a waiting list), a tool shed was donated by one of the neighbors, and donated fruit trees were planted. Several wine barrels (another of Martin’s ideas) hold hundreds of daffodil bulbs, but during the summer are host to a multitude of beets.
A large common area is filled with thriving corn and pumpkins that will soon be ready for sale. “It’s all been a big experiment,” says Martin, beaming.

Daily life in the garden
Hearing our voices in the garden, a large steer on the neighboring property lumbers over to the bordering fence, stares at us and begins to bellow, repeatedly. Martin refers to him as “the cow,” saying he used to name them, but they kept disappearing. Apparently a daily routine is to find an overgrown vegetable and offer it to the steer. Martin places it on the ground and the large bovine begins to nibble, and then quickly devour a giant zucchini. An important part of the garden eco-system, the “cow” augments the gardeners’ on-site compost bin.
While we observe the composter at work, Karen Pierce-Gonzales, a fellow crime fighter/gardener arrives on her bicycle. She and Martin do what gardeners do, which is discuss their garden plots’ bounty and what they intend to plant for winter. While we talk of how the garden came to be, Pierce-Gonzales says of Martin, “George may not have told you, but he is the Garden God around here.
“We dealt with our problem here without being confrontational.”

Decisions as a garden group
Plot holders are stepping up to take on needed tasks, according to Martin. But they’ve found that those who live in the neighborhood spend more time, while those who come from B section have to drive to the site and cannot be there as much. The group is working with the city to help set up some growing space closer to home for B section folks. Martin says he wants to see this spread like a virus into other neighborhoods.
The group has received a matching grant from the city. Anything the garden members get donated, the city will match up to $1,000. They’ve decided that the money will be used for fencing, so dogs and their owners will still be welcome without the worry of any accidental damage to the garden beds.

Lessons learned
Martin recently installed a motion detector for a neighbor who wanted to walk her dog at 5 a.m. They say there is no funding these days for neighborhood watch programs. “We made it a safer place, so people won’t feel vulnerable when they come to the park,” he says.
Lydia Court neighbors have not had to call the police once this summer.  Martin says he’s met five times the number of people he knew before the garden existed. “Everyone is attracted to the garden. It’s a ‘win-win’ for everyone. And I get to be in this garden every day,” he says with a big grin.

Garden facts
• It’s organic.
• Members work eight hours, besides tending their own plots.
• It’s open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. (or sunset).
• There are 20 garden beds and they hope to expand to another site.
• The cost for a garden plot is a $25 annual contribution for communal uses such as soil amendments and topsoil.
• Non-members can help on scheduled garden workdays
For more information, contact Vicki Vidak-Martinez at vvm92tam@comcast.net.