Sobrante Park is the kind of neighborhood families stay in for generations. It’s the right kind of place for a project like the Planting Justice nursery, an attempt to tap the deep roots of the community to build neighborhood resilience.
My host at the nursery was nursery manager Julia Toro. The nursery is one of the two money making entities under the Planting Justice non-profit umbrella. Toro told me that the non-profit organization has run the nursery as a for profit business for six years, selling popular and rare plant starts across the country. The abundance of the place was overflowing with varieties of plants both recognizable and totally unknown to me.
“The goal of the nursery was … to be financially self-sufficient, in order to reduce our reliance on foundation and grant money that comes with some strings attached,” said Toro as we walked through a greenhouse. Exotic mangoes and other topicals thrive in the stifling humid heat; we exited quickly.
“[A]ccessibility [is] one of those push and pull balances of like we want to be financially self-sufficient as an institution, but also there’s some other things that are more important,” Toro said. To pursue this end, Planting Justice has learned to include the wisdom and decision making of those on site, tending the ground.
Case in point. Toro led me to meet two of the staff as they worked seated at a table under an open tent. Adela Flores and her daughter, Yennifer Copto Flores, deftly handled ornate fruit tree branches, picking through to find the best ones and grafting them onto root stock one after the other. They seemed comfortable and in command, and watching them widdle, tape and seal the plants was a master class.
“Now, we’re grafting Asian pears, and we’re currently working on the hosui variety and we already did cherries,” Copto Flores explained.
I wanted to know if they had the same perception of the horizontal nature of the organization painted by Toro. Copto Flores translated my questions and her mom’s answers between English and Spanish.
“We come together and make decisions on what’s gonna happen next,” was the response I received. I have to say, the answers I got to this question around the nursery were invariably casual, comfortable. As if to say, “Of course we have a say in what happens; isn’t that as it should be?” Maybe working in a place like Planting Justice frees one from worrying about how things are and opens one up to how one should be living.
“How do you like working with your daughter?” I asked.
“It’s very good and pleasant to work with her. We don’t work as if we’re mother-daughter; we work more like friends, co-workers,” said Flores.
“[Working here] taught us how to eat better and, you know, to try to stay as healthy as we can,” said Copto Flores, adding that Flores is vegan now. “For me, it’s been like a really nice journey since I started working here… I didn’t know anything about plants or fruit trees,” she laughed. “If someone asked me what’s a stone tree, I wouldn’t have known how to answer that.”
There was some rapid-fire Spanish, and Copto Flores explained, “We’re just saying that most of these are not good anymore to graft. [I]t’s actually late for us to be grafting pears.” Still, they pulled out the best ones, cut, paired, taped and sealed with beeswax kept on melt at the other end of the table. “Since we’re an organic nursery for the most part, we try to keep it as organic as possible, so we don’t use chemicals that are not healthy for the plants.” After all, when bees provide a solution, take it.
The ladies told me that last year the whole graft crop was lost due to a mold. Out of 1,000 trees, maybe three were successful.
“But we have faith that this year will be better,” Copto Flores said. That’s the way we got to live, I added. “Yeah. Yeah,” she nodded.
Before Covid, the nursery led educational workshops for the neighborhood and local schools, people who wanted to learn what was happening at this quirky corner of Sobrante Park, bordered by the concrete banks of San Leandro Creek.
Gordon Limbrick grew up in the neighborhood, as did Copto Flores, and Flores lives down the street.
Limbrick used to play in the creek as a kid, floating down the waters on a mattress when the waters were high enough. He tells stories about frogs and turtles in the creek. Even salmon once swam there. Now along the back of the nursery where the creek looks more like a sewage drainage ditch, there is hardly any water, and the only mattresses to be seen are those burned along with abandoned cars sometimes at night for reasons that are hard to fathom.
Limbrick’s story shows just how important embedding a project like this is in an actual neighborhood, where families live for generations, and inequities in the economic and criminal system make it hard to find a way out.
One day, Limbrick heard about work at the nursery. Unsure what it could be but curious, he came down to check it out. “I was just at the point where I would do anything, [so] I just volunteered,” he said. By his second week, they accepted him with open arms and brought him on as a full-time employee.
Of what it is like to work at Planting Justice, Limbrick said, “I’ve never been in any place of employment or organization where everybody’s voice mattered.”
“We come down, we discuss things, have coffee together,” conversations that inform work plans for the whole group.
“It’s bigger than just a job, and we’re putting in good work that is going to go a long way,” he gestured with some pride. No, with investment. Sure the idea came from outside, but the neighborhood built this.