Walking around the San Diego neighborhood of South Park yesterday, I noticed that most yards had ornamental plants (giant bird of paradise, bougainvillea, lawn, Mexican sage, ficus, magnolia), but I came upon one that made me reminisce. It had peach and apricot trees, fava beans, broccoli, tomatoes, pole beans, hop vines, grape vines, avocado, citrus trees, pepper seedlings — all crammed into patches between the house and the street, including the strip between the street and the sidewalk, and also including another strip beside the neighbor’s driveway. These houses have tiny yards, but this person was using every square inch to grow food. I remember those days.


Tomatoes in my old Hillcrest canyon scream for sun.

I used to live in the nearby neighborhood of Hillcrest, where by hand I terraced the steep slope that was our yard. I cut back trees to allow for more sunlight, I asked the neighbor if I could grow a corn patch on his slope, and I grew boysenberries and tomatoes in the public right-of-way at the bottom of the canyon. Eventually, I even bought a series of pots and hauled them onto our roof to take advantage of that space. As I look back on it I see myself as desperate — as must be this person in South Park.

Hillcrest and South Park are places for people who like restaurants; they’re not for people who like to grow food. Living there only produces frustration for weirdos like us; living where I do now feels like paradise. To my South Park comrade: Move!

You won’t regret it. I’ve now got even more sunlight than I want. I actually have to plant my peppers to the east of tall tomatoes, or corn, or the house, so they don’t get burned by the afternoon sun. And to think that I was once cursing the neighbor’s eucalyptus and secretly lopping branches off another neighbor’s ficus to give peppers in Hillcrest a fighting chance.

I’ve got more land than I would ever plant. It’s actually not that much land, not much over an acre, but it is capable of being so productive since there are no neighbors’ trees casting shade. And we can let our trees grow as big as they naturally desire. The avocado tree at the house in South Park was struggling to be happy in its 20 square feet of allotted space. An avocado in such confines, and in less than full sun, simply can’t make much fruit for you.

There are costs to moving out of the city to be sure, but to a person like this one in South Park filling his yard with stunted apricot trees and claustrophobic hop vines, the pleasures of never again seeing botrytis on your boysenberries, of eating honeydew melon from your yard that is the sweetest and crispest you’ve ever tasted, of being able to grow more broccoli than your broccoli-loving wife can eat, of having a Reed avocado tree laden with softball-sized fruit right outside your door, of seeing any fruit tree at the nursery and knowing you could buy it and plant it in your yard if you felt like it, and five more if you felt like it — these feelings of freedom and success are invaluable.