A Bit of Garden History
By Rita Cipalla
Published Nov. 8, 2018 republished here with permission
HistoryLink.org Essay 20663
On January 7, 1976, property owned by the Picardo family at 8040 25th Avenue NE in Seattle's Wedgwood neighborhood is conveyed to the city by Orazio "Rainie" Picardo (1905-1985) via a quitclaim deed. The former family farm is the site of the first of what will grow to be 90 gardens in Seattle's P-Patch community-gardening program (named to recognize the family on whose land it got its start). Family patriarch Ernesto Picardo (1872-1961), Rainie's father, had emigrated from southern Italy to Seattle in the 1890s and started truck farming, first in South Park and then in Wedgwood in northeast Seattle. By the 1970s the farm had shrunk from 30 acres to 2.5 acres, whittled away by encroaching development. Around that time, a University of Washington student named Darlyn Rundberg, inspired by the fledgling back-to-the-earth movement, asked Rainie Picardo if she could use a corner of the property to start a community garden. He agreed and the first garden was planted to great success. In March 1973 the city council initiated plans to purchase the land from the Picardo family, and the P-Patch Program was born.
Early Roots of the P-Patch Program
Ernesto Picardo and his brothers Sabino (1884-1963) and Orazio (ca. 1886-?) farmed in South Park south of downtown Seattle in the early twentieth century and later moved to Wedgwood where they established a farm on a lot that encompassed some 35 city blocks. The family farmed that plot for about 50 years, delivering produce to Seattle's grocery stores and markets, including Pike Place Market. After World War II, when the Picardo sons returned from the war, most were not interested in farming. Little by little, the land was sold off to developers for post-war housing and to create a city-owned playfield.
In 1970, University of Washington student Darlyn Rundberg (later Del Boca) approached the Picardos to ask permission to use a small portion of their land for a community garden. When they agreed, she organized students from nearby Wedgwood Elementary School and their families to plant gardens.
"Then-City Council candidate John Miller -- later a U.S. congressman and ambassador -- remembers meeting Darlyn Rundberg at a coffee gathering, where she first told him about [the] Picardo farm. He decided to do something about it if he was elected" (Berger). Luckily for the P-Patch Program, Miller won the city council seat.
Encouraged that she might have a sympathetic ear on the city council, Rundberg solicited her neighbors to back a proposal asking the city to lease the Picardo land as a community garden for about $700 a year, which would cover the lot's property-tax bill. The neighborhood group envisioned some 300 plots on land to be managed by Puget Consumers Co-op (since 2017 known as PCC Community Markets). A master gardener would be hired to help. With support from Miller and fellow council member Bruce Chapman the city council approved the plan.
Later, in March 1973, the council took the initial steps toward acquiring the Picardo property and establishing a city-wide community-gardening program; a follow-up evaluation was scheduled for the end of the year. The review process deemed the pilot project a success and in 1974 the city launched a community-gardening program named the P-Patch Program, with the "P" saluting the Picardo family on whose land it began.
By 1975, the city moved to purchase the Picardo land. The council approved up to $78,000 from the city's Emergency Fund, which had been set aside to accommodate the purchase of recreational and open spaces. A quitclaim deed conveying the land to the city was signed by Orazio R. Picardo on January 7, 1976. Picardo had early on taken an interest in mentoring the new city gardeners:
"Rainie Picardo personally kept an eye on the urban farmers working his Wedgwood land. 'They've really been getting crops out of it this year,' he told a reporter. 'A lot of them don't know what it's all about; they don't know a whole lot about thinning and things like that. Sometimes, I go down there and try to help them out.' ... He was also proud of his farm's fertility. 'That's some pretty wonderful growing soil, some of the best in the city, I think'" (Berger).
This kind of personal attention, enthusiasm, and community support remained hallmarks of the P-Patch Program. It continued to grow and by 1993 had become the nation's largest community-gardening program. At the end of 2017, there were a total of 90 P-Patches in Seattle, with more than 3,000 individual plots tended by a slightly larger number of gardeners.
Over the years, the program forged successful partnerships with other community organizations, such as the Tilth Alliance, GROW, and Solid Ground's Lettuce Link. Two P-Patch gardens, New Holly and High Point, which sit on Seattle Housing Authority property, participate in the Market Garden Program. Gardeners grow to produce for themselves and their families and also sell some of it for a small profit at Market Garden farm stands. In 2017, 15 gardeners from five cultures worked together to grow organic fruit, vegetables, and flowers to sell at the vegetable stands.
A P-Patch of One's Own
With more than 2,000 people waiting to get a P-Patch to call their own, some P-Patch hopefuls plan and plot for months to get on the active list. In her 2015 memoir Orchard House, Seattle author Tara Austen Weaver, who moved to the city from the Bay Area, described her strategy:
"The year before I had taken myself on a tour of the P-Patches. There was a waiting list for plots, and I'd wanted to apply early, to be ready. Before I sent in my application, I decided to survey the scene ... The garden I liked best ... the one I could imagine myself part of was the original Picardo Farm in the northeast section of the city. It was large -- more than two hundred plots ... Because of the size, I assumed it would have a decent turnover. In the smaller gardens, I suspected that someone would need to move away or die before you could get a plot. In the midst of my garden frustration, a postcard arrived, welcoming me as a new member of the P-Patch program, assigned to Picardo Farm. My planning had paid off" (Weaver, 31-32).
During an orientation for new gardeners, Weaver met a cross-section of Seattle residents -- young, old, families with small children, retirees, different ethnicities and professions. Despite the variety, "everyone had the hearty look of a Seattleite, dressed in rain slickers and fleece. I wondered about the other things we all shared -- whatever mysterious thing made us want to grow food" (Weaver, 32). As Weaver found out, each P-Patch came with its own history and dreams.
"There were benches dedicated in memory of gardeners who had passed on. I'd heard of three Picardo marriages: relationships that had started over a row of peas and chard. I was charmed by a place where such things might happen. I was still new to Seattle, still trying to find where I might fit in, still deciding if this was my place. A garden seemed like a good spot to find community, or to grow it" (Weaver, 32).
The Picardo brothers, themselves outsiders in a strange new world, would undoubtedly agree that a garden of any size is a good first step to establishing roots and finding a community to call one's own.
This essay made possible by:
Randy and Barbara Schnabel
Seattle Office of Arts & Culture
Picardo Farm P-Patch, Seattle
Courtesy PCC Community Markets
Seattle city councilmember John Miller planting squash, P-Patch garden, Seattle, May 1974
Courtesy MOHAI (2000.107.072.25.06)
Gardeners, P-Patch garden, 1990
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (102163)
Picardo Farm P-Patch shed Wedgwood, Seattle, September 10, 2006
Photo by Joe Mabel, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Knute Berger, "Seattle P-Patch Godfather Ditched the Gold Rush for Gardening," Crosscut, October 24, 2013 (www.crosscut.com); Kery Murakami, "Do You Know Why They're Called P-Patches?," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 28, 2005 (www.seattlepi.com); "About the P-Patch Program: History, Part I: 1973-1983 -- Picardo, Passion and People: 30 Years of P-Patching" (by Judy Hucka), Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website accessed August 23, 2018 (http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/programs-and-services/p-patch-community-gardening/about-the-p-patch-program/history); Tara Austen Weaver, Orchard House (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015); Kiddy Emmanuel, "Growing Food, Growing Community" (video), YouTube website accessed October 30, 2018 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv5D4Behw3M); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "P-Patch Program (Seattle)" (by Rita Cipalla), (accessed November 8, 2018).
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Some links to more of Picardo's rich history:
Ernesto Picardo and market garden workers circa 1923
Picardo Farm looking westward circa 1920
Seattle City Council member John Miller planting squash May 1974 at Picardo
Courtesy MOHAI (2000.107.072.25.06)
Gardeners at Picardo 1990
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (102163)
Picardo Farm P-Patch
Courtesy PCC Community Markets, Seattle