The Alma Mater neighborhood looks almost like any residential area in Sabanilla and San Pedro, in eastern San José – long rows of houses built next to each other with little or no room for parks, gardens or recreational areas. Tall weeds creep up in the occasional vacant lot where future homes will be built.
But one of the dead end roads of Alma Mater is what sets this neighborhood apart from others. Towards the end of the street, a patch of green stands out among the brick walls and concrete sidewalks.
A peek inside shows a well-kept plot with the first signs of a vegetable garden. Patches of cleared land outlined by bricks and surrounded by tall trees create flat spaces for planting. Atop those surfaces, leaves and stems are already peeking out from the ground.
In no time, carrots, tomatoes, basil, cabbage and other vegetables will be ready to harvest.
The lot has become one of the first urban gardens in Costa Rica. It is the result of a group of ecology-minded people bringing the countryside’s bounties to the city. Members find empty lots and convince owners to convert them into green spaces for the community to use, not only as recreational spaces but also as places where they can plant the products that become ingredients in their daily salad.
The Alma Mater garden is a work in progress by Fundación de Lucha por la Tierra (Fultierra), a group who feels that the fight for the planet starts with their own habits. They started the project three years ago when they found the empty lot in the neighborhood. They searched for the owner and found a woman who was willing to lend them the lot at no charge.
People from the area and from other communities of San José joined together, cleaned the empty lot and started to plant.
They contacted Nehemías Rivera, a Peruvian organic agriculture expert living in Costa Rica, who taught them how to plant in terraces to avoid soil erosion and to create organic fertilizer from their own houses’ organic waste.
“Mr. Rivera taught us to approach our ecological project in a different way. He told us that the creation of our organic garden could be aesthetically beautiful, artistic and therapeutic, exactly the same way nature does it. After two years, our garden is a real ecological sanctuary,” said Paulina Mata, one of the foundation’s directors.
Today, one of Fultierra’s goals is to get more people in the community, as well as public and private institutions, involved with the project. They contacted Luis Pages, an urban garden promoter. With Pages’ help, Fultierra hopes their garden will become a “green classroom” for neighboring communities.
Pages is a member of Grupo Los Congos, a conservation group that organizes a variety of activities encouraging people to get closer to nature. He is also an empirically trained farmer who shares his knowledge through classes and workshops at the University of Costa Rica.
“More and more people are becoming interested in ways to help the environment through their own initiatives,” Pages said. “In my classes, I teach people how to create their own organic fertilizer among other organic agriculture strategies.”
Grupo Los Congos aims to start urban organic vegetable gardens in San José and other provinces. When people ask how to start a garden in their own neighborhoods, Pages and his team encourage them to find at least six people willing to work on each project. “We offer free training and information to groups with six or more people. We can guide them through the process of finding an empty lot or we can help them with techniques to grow a garden in a reduced space,” Pages said.
One of these farming techniques is known as “organoponics, “where sacks are filled with organic fertilizer and natural substratum. Small holes are cut into the sack to make room for the plants to grow. The sacks are then suspended, and plants grow out of the sides.
“People are interested in implementing these techniques because they are aware that most of the products available in the supermarkets are full of chemicals. Plus the products that you grow yourself always taste a lot better,” Pages said.
Group members see the urban gardens as a way to provide communities with the option of selling the products they grow in their neighborhood’s empty lots. “I visualize small markets where [growers] take their organic products to other neighborhoods that don’t have the option of planting their own vegetables,” Pages said.
There is one setback. In Costa Rica, organic product labels are expensive, and many residents can’t afford them. To get around this, Pages recommends using a “natural” tag that would allow communities to save money otherwise spent on official labels for their local fruits and vegetables.
However, much remains to be done before urban gardens can be converted into businesses. In the case of Alma Mater’s garden, only people who help plant and maintain the garden are allowed to take vegetables home.
“It is a job of patience,” said Paulina Mata, adding that, “We know that it demands lots of hard work. But in the end there are lots of advantages to working the land and eating the fruits [of labor].”
Mata joined the project because she wanted to learn gardening in order to pass the skill along to her daughter. “It is such a basic thing to do. In the past, everyone had contact with the earth. So many of us have grown up without that life experience and I don’t want my daughter to be one of those people,” she said.
To learn more, join Grupo Los Congos and Luis Pages Huertas Urbanas on Facebook, email [email protected], or call 8819-3173.
To help out at the Alma Mater urban garden, visit Thursdays 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., or call 8358-8969 or 8394-3185.